Seeing the Light: Serge Bromberg Unveils Cinematic Treasures by the Seine

sergenitrateThe film strip burst into a jet of bright yellow flame, cutting into the damp riverside air. As photographers snapped furiously, the nitrate exhaled its cloud of potentially toxic heat, sending waves of undulating shadows across the huge inflatable screen.

These pyrotechnics put the literal flamme in Serge Bromberg’s show Retour de Flamme—the play on words also means “backfire” or “flashback”—an anecdotal foray into film history through rare and recently discovered old movies.

When Bromberg lights up some nitrate stock, he’s not just performing a parlor trick. Rather, he’s reminding audiences of what might have happened to many of the precious films that he has spent his life hunting. As the director, producer, and founder of Lobster Films explained, “Classic cinema is an endangered part of our heritage. About half of the movies ever made have been lost.”

However, last night at the Berges de Seine Bromberg gave the crowd hope for the future of film preservation. Movies consigned to oblivion until a few months ago—or even a few weeks ago—saw the light again. And, more important, those movies elicited laughter and gasps of excitement from their spectators. Projected onto an enormous blow-up screen and accompanied on a piano by Bromberg, the strange assortment of once-lost films did what they were intended to, what their makers wanted them to: they entertained.

If movies have souls, and I suspect that they do, a few more just escaped from limbo.

sousleseaux

The presentation opened with “Paris sous les eaux,” an actualité documenting conditions in the city following the calamitous 1910 flood. As the footage showed, entire streets were submerged, turning Paris into a temporary Venice, only navigable by boats. Groups of mustachioed municipal workers paddled down the rues, pushing debris aside to clear passage.

Diving into his selections, Bromberg celebrated the centennial of Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp by screening Lobster Films’ new restoration of the two-reeler A Night in the Show (1915). The rowdy comedy showcases early Chaplin at his most disruptive, playing a tuxedo-clad drunk bent on upstaging a vaudeville performance with his own antics.

anightintheshowAs Bromberg noted, from 1908 to 1913 Chaplin’s performance of an almost identical scenario in Fred Karno’s Mumming Birds sketch, a hit since 1904, gave the young comedian his first taste of fame and paved the way for his cinema debut. After establishing the Tramp as a character in 1914, Chaplin returned to material from his stage career, but altered the sketch enough to avoid being sued by Karno.

Remastered from many elements, including some from the Musée d’Art Moderne and the Cinémathèque Française, the image quality of A Night in the Show was astonishingly sharp. After years of fuzzy, crackly Chaplin viewings on YouTube, I was amazed to see every spangle on Edna Purviance’s headdress! Plus, the pearlescent clarity of the restoration brought out the surprisingly refined feel of the short comedy—making the slapstick bits that much more hilarious.

Next, Bromberg dazzled audiences with a world premiere. About a month ago, he stumbled across a length of film on an online auction site and bought it for 7 euros. Well, actually, with shipping it turned out to be 11 euros, but that’s still a small price to pay for a complete version of Émile Cohl’s Le cauchemar de Fantoche (1908). The second animated cartoon ever made, this groundbreaking work was thought to exist only in damaged fragments before Bromberg’s discovery.

fantoche

Restored to its trippy glory, Le cauchmar de Fantoche or The Puppet’s Nightmare provokes a mean case of the heebie-jeebies. With a series of simple white figures on a black background, Cohl captured the bizarre logic of bad dreams where clocks turn into boogiemen, hats morph into prisons, and huge lobster claws prowl in search of the unfortunate Fantoche. The imagery is unremittingly morbid; for instance, a butterfly becomes a spider and spins a giant web across the screen. The short cartoon ends not with Fantoche waking up in his bed, as I anticipated, but with a huge knife cutting him in half.

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Émile Cohl, father of the animated cartoon and cultivator of fine moustaches.

Fluid transformations explore the potential of animation to show the impossible and foreshadow similar madness in Fleischer and Disney cartoons two decades later. As Bromberg noted, “It’s absolutely stunning to imagine that one man alone could invent the animated cartoon and then create an animation of this quality in a month.”

Cohl’s cartoon seemed like a tough act to follow, but Bromberg then projected a film that even he calls “époustoflant”—in English, we might say mind-boggling.

We know that Chaplin cribbed his basic premise for A Night in the Show from Fred Karno’s vaudeville number Mumming Birds, but he took pains to modify the scenario and avoid legal infringement. By contrast, in 1907 Charles Pathé had no qualms about copying the act more or less exactly for the short film Au Music Hall. Because Pathé did run into legal troubles, the one-reeler had been presumed lost for years.

Until about two weeks ago, when Bromberg’s research led to a print in Mexico among UNAM’s holdings.

A Pathé reproduction of a famous stage act might not sound particularly historic, but this one occupies an unusually sacred place in film history, uniting two great film artists. As Bromberg told the audience, “Frankly, what you’re going to see is a miracle. In fact, it’s probably a film that Charlie Chaplin saw before he started his vaudeville career. It might have inspired him to join Karno’s troupe, take on the famous act, and become Charlie Chaplin.”

And who else could have inspired Chaplin to become Chaplin… but the great French comedian Max Linder?

max

 “Qui? Moi?”

So, for the first time in probably more than 100 years, an audience watched Max Linder shamble though the Mumming Birds routine, giving a performance that likely lodged itself in Chaplin’s memory.

In Au Music Hall, Linder plays a prototype of the disastrous dandy persona that would make his fortune. Drunken Max falls out of his carriage and stumbles into a vaudeville theater. Proceeds to heckle or hinder every stage act put before him, he squirts a singer with a seltzer bottle, spoils a magician’s trick, and smooches an exotic dancer. Finally, when a strongman wrestler enters the stage with a lifesize doll for demonstration, Max tackles the doll… and loses the fight. Undaunted, the pint-sized fop tears off his jacket and goes fisticuffs with the wrestler, before ultimately being carted away by the theater manager.

chaplinlinder1918Primitive though Au Music Hall seems on the surface, and it’s basically two shots, Linder’s surprisingly graceful drunk routine and well-timed pratfalls elevate the short and hint at the future of screen comedy. Whereas vaudeville sketches and early films often relied on interchangeable stock characters, Linder conveys the impression, even in long shot, of somebody we want to get to know better. His little bits of business, like repeatedly conking his head on a tassel in his theater box or flipping a mass of unruly black hair out of his face, cry out for a close-up or two.

Chaplin called Linder his “professor” for a reason. In 1907, this little Englishman may well have watched this little Frenchman and seen a glimmer of personality, of photogénie to which he could aspire.

Bromberg’s following selection was the only part of the program announced ahead of time: Buster Keaton’s The Blacksmith with recently rediscovered footage.

If you’ve seen The Blacksmith as it’s been circulating for years, you might have noticed a flaw in the comic structure. After squirting oil all over an immaculate white horse, Buster pulls almost the same routine on an immaculate car. I love Buster Keaton for his refreshing versatility of gags, so this repetition always fatigues me a little.

The rediscovered footage really creates an alternate version of the film—and a superior one, in my estimate, complete with an action sequence, some risqué humor, and a very Keaton proposal scene. Although the endings of the two versions vary slightly, the main difference occurs in the early middle of the film.

In the cut I saw last night, Buster leaves the confines of the blacksmith shop and takes his burly, surly boss’s beloved car for a joyride. Alas, Buster runs into Mr. Surly himself who futilely gives pursuit. They only pause to sit down and admire the silhouette of a nubile young lady disrobing in front of her window. When she prematurely turns out the light, the chase is on again, until Buster locks Mr. Surly into a shed.

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Not only does this sequence inject more movement into the film, but it also strengthens Buster’s relationship with the snooty equestrienne he ends up marrying. In all previous versions, Virginia Fox’s character interacts with Buster only towards the beginning and then at the end of the film. Gorgeous though Buster is, I don’t quite buy that Miss Snooty would elope with him on the basis of two meetings. Well, in the rediscovered footage, while fleeing Mr. Surly and running around a house, Buster bumps into Miss Snooty, drops to bended knee, and proposes… before running around the house again to elude Mr. Burly… and then he proposes again. And so forth. This charming vignette lends just enough credibility to the romantic subplot without wasting a second of screen time.

Bromberg recounted how this extraordinary footage, instead of hiding out in an attic or a basement all these years, was waiting in plain sight—in a film archive, no less. After receiving a phone call from Fernando Pena, who also found the full cut of Lang’s Metropolis, describing the alternate Blacksmith, Bromberg asked him to bring the footage to France so that he could examine it.

Pena, however, suggested that wouldn’t be necessary: the alternate version was probably the print of The Blacksmith that was generally distributed through Europe in 9.5mm, a home viewing format. Bromberg checked the 9.5mm version at the Centre National de la Cinématographie and there, sure enough, was the alternate cut—as well as a 35mm version with yet more unseen footage. It had been there for years. Moral of the story: never take anything for granted.

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I get the feeling that somewhere Buster is laughing at us.

To wrap up the program, Bromberg played two wacky trifles that I won’t soon forget: Canine Sherlock Holmes (1912) and Bambi Meets Godzilla (1969). The former, a short British crime thriller, lives up to the promise of its title with a hyperactive Jack Russell terrier who thwarts a group of bank robbers. This manipulative little pooch even gains entry into the bad guys’ lair by curling up in the middle of the road and pretending to have been run over. Could anyone—even a hardened criminal—resist the desire to nurse little Spot the Dog back to health?

In the latter film, animator Marv Newland makes good on his title when Bambi, after grazing in a field of flowers for the duration of the credits, is smashed by a reptilian foot from above. “We gratefully acknowledge the city of Tokyo for their help obtaining Godzilla in this film.” The End.

The end of Bromberg’s spectacle arrived just as abruptly for this spectator, who could have stayed at the Berges watching classic film snippets until dawn.

Sitting scrunched up in a beach chair by the Seine as the night breeze floated off the water, I witnessed film and life mingling mysteriously. Boats passed, sirens warbled in the distance, cooing couples walked on the quai above. At one point, a gaggle of inebriated young ladies started singing and calling out to the screen. They didn’t realize that they were echoing Chaplin via Linder via Karno, but they added another layer Mumming Birds-esque commentary to the show.

As the sights and sounds of the world now gently (or not so gently) filtered into the world then as projected in front of me, I pondered the strange lives of the films themselves.

Not unlike a human life, a film destroyed forever unravels the fabric of time in a way that cannot be repaired or even entirely understood. A work of art is never lost alone; it wipes out a network of influences, preparations, moments, dreams, footnotes, and possibilities.

Conversely, a lost film found might knit together the threads of innumerable lives. Charlie Chaplin watched Max Linder, so now when I watch Max Linder, I’m watching Chaplin through Linder. When I watch Chaplin, I watch Linder through Chaplin. The next time I watch Godzilla, I’ll think of Bambi. And the next time I watch Sherlock, I’ll think of Spot the Dog. Even the curiosities, the baubles, the trinkets of film history affect our brains—and sometimes our culture as a whole—in powerful and unpredictable ways.

As a film event, Bromberg’s Retour de Flamme resonates so profoundly, I believe, because it alerts audiences to the mystical dialogue between movies themselves and between movies and lives.

May the yet-undiscovered nitrate reels remain stable, but may the cinephile flame keep on burning. Amen.

berges

Eight Films in Eight Days: Cinematic Adventures in Paris

cinemaThe French take classic movies, like all forms of sophisticated pleasure, rather seriously.

For instance, if I want to go see a great movie at the Forum des Images, I must do so without so much as a macaron to sustain myself through the screening. Meanwhile, a few meters away, a huge multiplex sells the latest forgettable films on the market—with a full concession stand wafting good smells. I can hear its siren call, “Come over to the dark side… we have popcorn.”

But no, true bliss demands discipline before it bestows its favors. As much as the rigor and intensity of French audiences intimidate me, I also admire their deep respect and love for the fascinating films of yesterday. It warms the cockles of my heart to witness such a wide range of ages attending screenings, from a school group of tweens at the Cinémathèque to dowagers in Chanel suits frequenting the legendary theaters of the Latin Quarter.

In Max Ophüls’s Le Plaisir, the narrator of the first story concludes, “Le bonheur n’est pas gai.” That is, “Happiness is not joyful.” So you’d be wrong to think that solemn spectators in Paris movie theaters were absorbing the films like some kind of bitter medicine. In fact, they’re about as happy as you can get for €7.50.

Anyway, without further ado, here’s a pretty representative sample of what you can see in huit jours (the French often talk about “eight days” when they mean a week) in cinema’s hometown. Lucky for me, I also happened to be visiting Paris during La Fête du Cinéma, a yearly event that reduces ticket prices to €3.50 for a few days.

ritaCover Girl (Charles Vidor and Gene Kelly, 1944)

The Venue: Sadly, the Cinémathèque Française doesn’t live where it used to back in the days when Langlois hand-picked the movies, Musidora helped work the box office, and the likes of Truffaut, Godard, and Rivette hogged the front-row seats. But, hey, look on the bright side: there’s a gift shop. And you can still see a wide variety of classics, from the obvious to the obscure, projected from the archive’s own collection of prints.

The Movie: This inventive, flamboyantly-colored backstage musical, about a hoofer who wins a modeling contest, gave Rita Hayworth’s rising star a major boost.

Why I Went to See It: Whereas the Cinémathèque’s founder put together wildly eclectic programs of movies each day, the establishment now heavily favors retrospectives and coherent series. When I go see a movie at the Cinémathèque, I look for movies that belong to the Histoire Pérmanente du Cinéma series, which tends to feature a wider assortment of films, including some real rarities as well as Hollywood classics.

The Print: A 35mm version with French subtitles from the Cinémathèque’s vaults. The well-loved reels started to crackle and break up at their beginnings and ends—resulting in one jump cut so startling that I swear I thought the Nouvelle Vague boys got ahold of the print!

My Highlight: Rita Hayworth, wearing a somewhat plain navy suit with red piping, in a waiting room full of models decked out in chic pastels. The lily needs no gilding.

Bottom Line: Technicolor is a damn good storyteller. 

otherThe Other (Robert Mulligan, 1972)

The Venue: Crammed into an underground mall amongst numerous fast food joints and chain stores, the Forum des Images does not overwhelm you at first sight.

However, since the Forum opened in 2008, its exciting programs and decidedly hip ambiance have won over cinephiles from all walks of life.

With both purple fluorescent lights and a changing collection of real vintage posters hanging up in the lobby, the space revels in an oh-so-French blend of old and new. Did I mention the cinema library, where individual browsers can partake of thousands of films and books about films?

The Movie: A horror film? A coming-of-age story? A psychological thriller? However you categorize The Other, it’s much more than another good-twin-bad-twin movie.

Why I Went to See It: In my humble opinion, The Other also ranks as one of the unheralded masterpieces of the 1970s.

The Print: I neglected to notice that the Forum planned on screening a 35mm print in version française, borrowed from the Cinémathèque de Toulouse. That is, with dubbing from the original French release. Listening to all of the characters speaking approximations of their lines in French—and having to provide some whispered translations for my mother—oddly enough gave me the pleasant sensation of watching the film as if for the first time.

My Highlight: The way milkweed silk catches the sunlight as one of the twins carries pods of the fluffy stuff across a bucolic field.

Bottom Line: My respect for this film grew even more after seeing it on a big screen. 

loveLove in the Afternoon (Billy Wilder, 1957) 

The Venue: Fortified by some steak au poivre, I returned to the Forum des Images for the second screening of the day.

The Movie: A barely legal cellist tames a notorious roué by regaling him with false tales of her amorous escapades… lifted from the files of her private eye father. I can only describe this silly, tender trifle as an operetta without singing.

Why I Went to See It: Billy Wilder + Paris + Tango Music = Where Do I Buy My Ticket?

The Print: A well-preserved 35mm version.

My Highlight: Back-to-back close-ups of weathered Gary Cooper and weathered Maurice Chevalier in their confrontation scene. I’d weather that weather!

Bottom Line: It’s the sort of movie that makes you want to go kiss the first person you meet in the street. Fortunately I knew better than to ruin my lipstick. 

champo1A Time to Love and a Time to Die (Douglas Sirk, 1958)

The Venue: Rue Champollion is the epicenter of Paris cinephilia, lined with art house theaters of which La Filmothèque is my favorite so far. Sure, you might have to elbow someone out of the way to get your tickets, but it’s totally worth your trouble to burrow into a comfy plush chair in a screening room with golden floral sconces.

And, sure, some crazy filmgoer might bawl you out for fidgeting during the movie when you were just reaching for your lip balm, but that’s all part of the thrill. Next time, I think I’ll shush someone who isn’t talking, just for the hell of it.

The Movie: A typical love story set in crumbling WWII Germany, elevated by Sirk’s sometimes lyrical, sometimes gritty, but always arresting use of CinemaScope.

Why I Went to See It: When I was in college, I read young Godard’s review of A Time to letempsLove and it’s a real hoot, ending with something along the lines of, “You don’t know beauty ‘til you’ve seen it.” Well, I’d never seen it… And if I ever meet Godard, now I’ll at least have something to talk about while politely avoiding the topic of the migraine that Weekend gave me.

The Print: A gorgeous 35mm version, recopied from the original negative, with French subtitles.

My Highlight: A platinum blonde chanteuse keeping calm and carrying on signing in a swanky wine cave turned bomb shelter while perched on an enormous wooden keg.

Bottom Line: No, I’m not crying. I just got some irony in my eye…

All That Heaven Allows (Douglas Sirk, 1955)

The Venue: La Filmothèque again. Shorter lines, no crazy lady barking at me—such a disappointment.

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The Movie: A society lady falls for her gardener and his proto-hippie ethos of self-reliance à la Walden, and almost everyone she knows tries to crush her happiness.

Why I Went to See It: The world seems tragically drab after watching a Sirk film. I needed my next fix.

The Print: Another 35mm version in Technicolor with French subtitles. Some days I really like my life…

My Highlight: Jane Wyman standing in blue light, wearing a red dress, gazing at a yellow tree branch in a vase—the primary color triangle, almost phantasmagorically saturated—left me agape.

Bottom Line: I love happy endings, especially when they come with an alarmingly friendly stag that serves as the auteur’s eye-roll to his audience. 

ticketsL’Arlésienne (André Antoine, 1922)

The Venue: The Cinémathèque Française—and I should warn you that the establishment screens its silents without music. This tradition stems from the days when Henri Langlois couldn’t afford an accompanist and thus decided to argue that truly silent silents offer the viewer greater advantages. It’s so quiet you can hear the metallic whine of the projector behind the wall.

Look, I’m up for the occasional surreal film event kind of thing, but I do believe that silent movies, to be properly enjoyed, appreciated, and, yes, even studied, require music. When those films first hit theaters, they had live music and they still cry out for that treatment.

I have this nightmare where someone who’s never seen a silent film walks into the Cinémathèque and emerges with the impression that silent movies are austere, remote relics—when nothing could be further from the truth. So, you’re hearing it from me: if silent movies are as yet undiscovered territory for you, please seek out a screening with live music or at least some music.

The Movie: Frédéri, a farm heir obsessed with a vampy townswoman from Arles, agrees to marry a peasant girl who loves him. Brace yourself for tragedy.

Why I Went to See It: I’d never even heard of this film and, chances are, I’ll never get to see it again.

The Print: This 35mm version, restored in 1990 with support from the Musée d’Orsay, sparkled with sunlight and shadows. The original intertitles—written in that soothing, graceful Art Nouveau font that one often sees on early 20th century French posters—offered an unforeseen treat to the eyes.

My Highlight: An ominous silhouette shot of the woman from Arles watching Frédéri hover in front of her lace-curtained window, like a shadow puppet. But there were so many stunning countryside shots of sheep ambling and villagers dancing that I lost track of my favorites.

Bottom Line: A fascinating and sensual document of rural France in the 1920s weighed down by a waffling, melodramatic plot. Maybe music would’ve helped.

champo2Cléo de 5 à 7 (Agnès Varda, 1962)

The Venue: Le Champo opened its doors in 1938 and has been delighting cinephiles ever since. The movie theater now specializes in retrospectives—as I write, there are series showcasing Ford, Renoir, and Varda. The screening room where I saw Cléo featured a charming canopy of tiny lights, sparkling from the ceiling like distant stars.

Why I Went to See It: A few days before, I got my taste of Paris, Paramount-style with Love in the Afternoon. Just as one craves salty after sweet, I wanted a taste of the real Paris, in all its 1960s chaos and glory, as it appeared to the street-roving cameras of the Nouvelle Vague filmmakers.

The Print: Actually it was a 2K digital projection; the restoration and digitization was overseen by Varda herself. I tend to be a skeptic where digital is concerned, but the eloquent crispness of the images proved quite persuasive.

My Highlight: Cléo’s grey kitten swatting at the train of her angelic negligee. Although the switch from color to black-and-white in the opening scene also took my breath away.

The Bottom Line: This movie is heaven for the eyes, but hell on mascara.

spiteSpite Marriage (Edward Sedgwick and Buster Keaton, 1929)

The Venue: Forum des Images again. This time, before my screening, I tried out the stylish, yet comfy café on the second floor, which I totally recommend. A pot of green tea before a movie does so much to focus one’s powers of concentration, n’est-ce pas?

Why I Went to See It: Buster and his biceps on a big screen. Well, that’s a big part of it, but I also wanted to observe how a French audience would react to a Keaton movie. In his memoir, Buster wrote with pride that the French referred to him as “Malec,” a word that has no direct translation, but which means roughly “the hole in the doughnut” or “a blank piece of paper.” Um… does that mean he represents some kind of cosmic emptiness? And can you laugh at a cosmic emptiness?

The Print: A surprisingly unblemished 35mm version, on loan from the Cinémathèque de Toulouse. I only realized afterwards that this marked the first time I ever saw Buster on 35mm.

My Highlight: Tough to pin down, but I think the prize goes to Buster’s fierce frowny face, hissing the villain from the play in which his lady love plays the lead.

Bottom Line: A doughnut hole-in-one. You could probably hear the laughter for blocks. Apparently happiness can be joyful…

Just Dandy: The Art of Max Linder

maxyHe was the first international movie star. The man Charlie Chaplin called his “professor.” A visionary writer-director.

And in 1925, Max Linder—sickened by war wounds, maddened by post-traumatic stress, and increasingly neglected by the audiences he had once delighted—died by his own hand. It was a very sad end for a very funny man.

Linder deserves perhaps more credit than anyone else for refining that curious alchemy that we now recognize as great screen comedy. His cocktail of uproarious pratfalls, farcical situations, surreal gags, and wistful, tender humor was utterly unlike anything that came before.

Over the course of hundreds of film appearances from 1905 to 1925, many of which he directed, he developed a signature mischievous, urbane style of physical comedy. In a 1917 interview, the comedian himself commented on this intentional, yet intuitive mix of high and low: “I prefer the subtle comedy, the artistic touch, but it is a mistake to say I do not use the slapstick. I do not make it the object; I do not force it; but I employ it when it comes in naturally.”

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Max Linder shows his affection for cats of all sizes.

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At five-foot-two, Linder looked tiny even in his splendid high hat. His dainty features, his fussy feline mustache, his spindly legs, and his glistening immaculacy of dress all gave the diminutive comedian the aura of a pretty wind-up toy. Such a comedic creation, a dapper, accident-prone bourgeois, could easily have fallen into the sort of frivolous comedy that sours as quickly as cheap champagne. However, Linder endowed his Max with a romantic fire and a befuddled enthusiasm that transcend time.

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Linder understood that only a proper man could ever truly be improper. In his full regalia, he dazzled viewers with head-to-toe elegance at the beginning of his films—and wound up sullied almost beyond recognition by the end of the reel. He didn’t look like the sort of man whose shoes would catch on fire, who would end up sharing a cage with a lion, or who would get trapped on the fender of an automobile. Which made it all the funnier when he did.

Unlike raffish Chaplin, woebegone Keaton, or boy-next-door Lloyd, Linder infused his onscreen persona with an upper-class whimsy. He does what he does not necessarily because he has to, but often because he damn well feels like it.

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Max wants to be a bullfighter? He grabs a rug hanging out to dry nearby and brandishes it like a matador, imagining an unlucky oncoming cyclist as his bull.

Max wants to woo two women? He does—and somehow in the process punches a friend, clocks a stranger on the head with a rotten apple, and starts a duel.

Max wants to take a bath? He can’t get the huge tub into his room, so he deposits it in the lobby of his apartment building, scandalizes the other tenants, and ends up fleeing the cops with the porcelain tub on his back like a turtle’s shell.

toureiffel

Linder’s screen Max is a miraculous bungler, a sprite, a magical creature who happens to frequent mundane places of respectability. In his top-hatted silhouette, seemingly on equal terms with the Eiffel Tower in “L’anglais tel que max le parle,” we recognize a kind of transitional icon, the bridge between chivalry and modernity, between the 19th century gentleman and the 20th century superstar.

There is something heroic in the quixotic desires that stir him. And life imitated art. We’re talking about a man who wore three different suits per day and travelled with 46 trunks of clothes and accessories. Who fought a bull in Spain—and won to the joy and amazement of ecstatic crowds. A man who, although he could’ve avoided military service, volunteered for his country during World War I and had to be practically blown up, frozen in an icy bomb crater, shot twice, and reported dead before he would accept his honorable discharge.

His beautiful impracticality, his slavery to caprice, his cavalier courage all make him a true dandy and a great artist.

boots

Stand in front of an oncoming train? Pas de problème. Wear ugly boots? Quelle horreur!

In his pre-WWI short films, Linder already showcased a guillotine-sharp knack for conceptual, innovative gags. In “Le roman de Max” (1912), for instance, our man-about-town arrives at a hotel resort at the same time as a beautiful woman. We feel the electricity between the strangers as they wordlessly walk side by side up a series of staircases and lodge in adjacent rooms. However, no sooner do they place their dirty boots in the hall and close their doors than these shoes come to life.

Screen Shot 2013-12-16 at 6.45.08 PM

In an early example of pixilation (the animation of an inanimate object on film), the pointed toes wiggle and rub against each other in a strikingly erotic kiss. This trippy courtship image could never exist on a stage; it both mocks and poetically celebrates the intimacy of the film medium. It’s a trick borrowed from another early short, of course, but Max frames it and milks it for all its tenderness and charm. The next day, Max and the mysterious belle are hilariously drawn to each other by the insistent magnetism of their soles.

maxflies

Max Linder was likewise one of the first comedians to explore the humor of dream logic and the possibility of recreating it through editing. In “Max asthmathique” (1915), our little gentleman sojourns in the Alps and decides to do some skiing. Once he gets to the top of the slopes, he comes speeding down with such celerity that he careens over the mountain peaks, over the ocean, over the rooftops of Paris… only to wake up in his bed. The trick backgrounds and Méliès-ish editing as Max “flies” on skis over various terrains foreshadows Buster Keaton’s montage frolics in Sherlock Jr.

chaplinlinder1918Although the great silent comedians who followed Linder were pioneers in their own right, their debt of gags and comedic “grammar” to the Man in the Silk Hat isn’t hard to discern. Consider Max’s burlesque attempts at suicide (though less funny in retrospect) in “Max in a Taxi” (1917), Linder’s first film made in California.

Disowned by his father for bad behavior, the prodigal fop decides to end it all by lying down in front of an oncoming train. We see the train approaching in long shot, far away. Max, sartorially obsessed even in the face of death, flicks some of the dirt away from the train tracks and lies down. The train chugs forward—and turns onto a different track at the last possible second. Cut to: a very disappointed and outraged Linder in close-up.

If this description triggers a sense of déjà vu, that might be because Harold Lloyd famously included an almost identical sequence in “Haunted Spooks” (1920). Lloyd’s bespectacled boy loses “one of the only girls I’ve ever loved” and plunks himself right in the path of an oncoming trolley, with his back to the streetcar… which promptly veers in the other direction. Cut to: a medium close-up of Lloyd looking dazed. Certainly, Lloyd adapted the gag to his own particular tone (it’s part of a long sequence of suicide attempts), but one can detect strong echoes of Linder’s concept and timing. Keaton would also film a variation on this scene in “Hard Luck” (1921), in which the oncoming trolley backs up, leaving hapless Buster no choice but to find another way to off himself.

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The perennial richness of this routine seems all the more impressive, given that Max was forced to stay in a sanatorium for a relapse of his lung troubles shortly after the making of “Max in a Taxi.” And all the more sad, given the way some critics panned the film.

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Linder transitioned gracefully into comedy features. In Seven Years Bad Luck and Be My Wife, both made in 1921, comedy set pieces flow harmoniously into each other as the slightly sanitized Max curbs his roving fancies and tries to win just one dream girl. The better-known of the pair of films, Seven Years Bad Luck features Linder’s famous mirror routine, in which one of his servants tries to cover up the breakage of a mirror by pretending to be Linder’s reflection. You might have seen it… in Duck Soup, made over ten years later.

Be My Wife features a similar act of doubling, a scene in which Max, hoping to impress his lady love’s disapproving aunt, stages a fight behind a curtain. Pretending to fend off an unseen criminal, Max becomes a brawl of one. He even goes so far as to put another pair of boots on his hands and walk on all fours, giving the impression of two men tussling. However, the funniest part isn’t that Max is basically beating himself up. What’s most amusing is that he feels the need to do it in character—jumping from spot to spot, playing both the bad guy and the good guy with a flamboyant theatricality just for his own benefit.

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Linder’s life of comedy came to a tragic end. As he had observed, “They are closely akin—the tears and the smiles.” He explained shortly after returning from the war, “This great sadness has made me wish to bring more joy into the world. I want to make people laugh as never before.”

And 130 years after his birth, he is still doing exactly that.

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Absolutely no article on Max would be complete without mentioning his daughter, Maud Linder, who has tirelessly worked to preserve her father’s film legacy and to restore his place in cinema history. She is doing amazing work and everyone interested should buy the DVD “Laugh with Max Linder,” which showcases a few of his shorts and Seven Years Bad Luck in gorgeous condition.

As for the offerings you can find on YouTube, here are my recommendations for those just getting started on Linder’s brilliant filmography:

1910 – Max prend un bain

1912 – Max reprend sa liberté

1912 – Le roman de Max

1916 – Max entre deux feux

1917 – Max in a Taxi

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The Cameraman (1928): Roll With It

postHe had never seen her before, but he knew on sight that she was something mysterious, unattainable, and lovely.

He longed to understand her and couldn’t help edging a little closer.

And so Buster’s onscreen love affair with the movie camera begins—almost identically to his mega-crush on Sally, who happens to work at the M-G-M Newsreel Office. Upon “meeting” both Sally and a newsreel camera, he proceeds the same way, with boyish simplicity and joy in discovery, snuggling up to of them without a thought for what others might perceive as weirdness. Just as Buster can’t resist plunging his face into Sally’s hair and inhaling deeply, he sticks his head right inside the chamber of the first professional newsreel camera he gets the chance to examine.

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Screen Shot 2013-09-21 at 11.22.54 AMHe nuzzles the woman and the camera in much the same way, knowing instinctively that the mechanical device which so many of us see as cold and exacting is, in fact, a fascinating creature with as many secrets as a beautiful woman. Admittedly, the camera Buster explores in the newsreel office is a different from the one that becomes his loyal companion, a mangy early Pathé camera that needs to be hand cranked. Nevertheless, his childlike affection for the device in general is telling and utterly charming.

Screen Shot 2013-09-21 at 7.27.05 PMThe film originally ended with Buster abandoning the camera in a Chinatown scrape. He previewed the sequence and it “died the death of a dog. It dawned on us what that was. I deserted that camera. So I had to go back and remake that—even with the trouble of trying to get away… I still kept my camera. Then it was all right.”  Throughout the perilous Chinatown tussle, Buster gallantly totes his battered camera around as he usually carries damsels in distress, hugging her to his body when the bad guys corner them. The romantic bond between Buster and his camera must never be undermined, otherwise the whole film would come crashing down.

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Buster’s onscreen love of the camera as a being, an almost personified toy that brings him closer to his dream girl, reflects his real-life appreciation of this mystical doohickey. No sooner did Buster start his film career than he borrowed a camera, took it apart, and put it back together again: “One of the first things I did was tear a motion picture camera practically to pieces and found out [about] the lenses and the splicing of film and how to run it on the projector.” The potential of the device immediately struck him; he grasped the boundless scale of what a camera could put before viewers, compared to the cramped artifice of a stage.

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And because Buster, real and fictionalized, loves his camera, the camera loves him, takes pity on him, and comes forth to bear witness to his courage when he needs it most.

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As a movie about movies—or, to be precise, about the video journalism of newsreels—The Cameraman blissfully shatters all of our notions about the boundaries between fact and fiction. Really, it’s a movie that messes with your head in the best possible sense. I mean, by the end, we’re watching people watching Buster Keaton in a movie… within a Buster Keaton movie. Thanks to its dizzying mise-en-abyme conclusion, much of The Cameraman’s most enduring humor and pathos resides in its ability to hint at what it means to film something, to preserve reality and then to play it back.

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For instance, during the climactic Tong War in Chinatown, Buster’s antics reveal the extent to which “documentary” footage often benefits from a little creative staging. Buster, caught in the thick of it, seizes on the opportunity to embellish what’s happening all around him. Watching two men wrestling on the ground, trying to reach a knife, Buster drops them the knife and then cranks away, recording the now slightly more dramatic fight.

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Once holed up in a dry goods store, he positions his camera in the window and chucks a few light bulbs down on the squabbling gangsters below to stir the fight up a bit more, all in the sake of a better shot. We recognize that the newsreel cameraman is never a passive entity, a dumb witness to events. Merely by choosing what to record and how to record it, what to show and what exclude, he discerns value and importance out of a world of noise. And, as Buster shows, these early video journalists didn’t baulk at stooping to a little directing, as well.

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I’ll bet audiences left The Cameraman feeling a bit more wary of newsreel truth, seeing how those daring young men with their filming machines sometimes enhanced the action. Rearranging or even totally restaging historical events wasn’t unheard of for news coverage… and it still isn’t! Here I’m reminded of the famous Civil War photographs of Matthew Brady, so celebrated for their rawness and authenticity… when, in fact, his assistants arranged the corpses for better compositions. Does that make the photographs less truthful? Perhaps. But nobody cares about the truth if it’s not interesting.

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The screening of the Chinatown footage vindicates Buster’s deft management of the situation. Every thrilling shot explodes with danger and conflict. The chief of the M-G-M Newsreel Office even exclaims, “That’s the best camera work I’ve seen in years!” As we watch the footage, we chuckle, however, because we recognize Buster’s handiwork. We see the situation twice—first as a movie, with Buster present as the protagonist, and secondly as a newsreel, with Buster’s presence and influence subtly permeating each frame.

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The humor that arises from this doubling of perspective impresses me with its complexity. The Cameraman abounds with delicious pratfalls, gags, and physical comedy, including the famous get-a-load-of-Buster’s-abs dressing room sequence followed by the nude swimming pool scene.

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In My Wonderful World of Slapstick, Buster remembered that the film received one of its biggest laughs during the scene where the wet-behind-the-ears cameraman watches his film being previewed for the newsreel crew. The trial goes hopelessly badly, because the reel of film that the newbie took consists of a series of hilarious double exposures and trick shots. Battleships float through New York, stunt divers flip backwards out of the water, and city streets jumble together in an impossible collage of mayhem.

Screen Shot 2013-09-21 at 11.55.11 AMOf course, what cracks me up about this scene is that his footage looks scarily like the montage documentary opus Man with a Movie Camera, which features a plethora of impressive yet playful superimpositions. See? Buster’s not incompetent! He’s a prodigy. He’s a natural Dziga Vertov, for crying out loud! Amusingly, what doesn’t cut it for the newsreels actually makes for splendid art—and for a hearty laugh.

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Although the film was mostly made at a studio, it does include some genuine newsreel footage, like the shot of Charles Lindberg that punctuates its conclusion. The archive shot serves a clear narrative purpose, explaining the reason for the parade Buster gets caught up in, which he thinks is in his honor—and also adds a strong emotional reaction to the scene.

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No American in 1928 could’ve looked at that shot and not been filled with pride and joy. This documentary image, plucked from the Hearst files, serves an expressive purpose in the context of a fictional narrative. Lindberg’s real-life triumph—and he was Superman in the 1920s—echoes Buster’s smaller victory, and the inclusion of reality bolsters the fiction.

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Plus, Buster’s confusion, mistakenly believing that the swelling ticker-tape parade is celebrating him, parallels the mix-up created by seeing newsreel footage of Lucky Lindy embedded in a fictional storyline. We get a whole bundle of conflicting things to laugh about. Buster thinks he’s the protagonist in the newsreel reality of the diegesis, but he’s not. However, in the reality of The Cameraman, he is, of course, the protagonist.

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The fact that a movie about newsreels returns to actual newsreel footage at the end makes us feel that the whole film has coiled up on itself. Buster never quite lets us free of this movie, trapping us in a Möbius strip of irony to the end. Was this a fiction with a detour through newsreels… or a newsreel with an extended detour through fiction?

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Buster’s adventures cross over so serendipitously with actual historical events—even if the documentary footage component makes up only a few feet of film among thousands of studio-shot illusion. His journey, especially the wish fulfillment conclusion, recalls the way we bump into our favorite films and half imagine ourselves to be the protagonists.

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What is and is not recorded on camera also interjects some of the saddest moments of The Cameraman—and some of the saddest moments of any comedy I’ve seen! When Buster returns from his death-defying mission to Chinatown only to discover that he forgot to put film in the camera, the emptiness of the reel makes our hearts sink. Not only has he utterly failed as the newsreel journalist he longs to be, but he literally lost the thing that he tried so hard to protect. The fruit of his labor, the thing that he valued above his own safety, suddenly dematerialized. Such is the nature of film.

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When Buster rescues the girl and goes to get something to revive her, he returns to find her walking away with another man. As our hero sinks to his knees, the camera slowly slides away from him… showing his own camera a few yards away, still being cranked by Josephine the monkey.

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It’s hard to put into words what that devastating tracking shot conveys. As Buster watches, the young lovers walk away, and his heart breaks, like an intruder in somebody else’s movie, a conventional romantic comedy. I suppose that seeing the camera jerks us out of the film world and forces us to take a moment of silent reverence for the suffering that Buster undergoes for the sake of our belly laughs. The sudden appearance of that implacable camera shocks us and strips away the escapism of comedy.

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However, on a deeper level, the absurdity of a camera capturing the depths of his despair, of memorializing a moment he’ll always remember with a tiny throb of anguish, drives home the loneliness of the experience. I mean, what if someone videotaped the worst moment of your life? Pretty harsh. His only companion (besides the monkey) is that helpless three-legged beast, the camera. And she can’t understand what he’s going through… or can she? Perhaps she can make his isolation shine. After all, that sublime tracking shot sure does. That complex shot is every bit the equivalent of the ending shot of Chaplin’s City Lights, in my humble opinion—that one shot that tells you everything you need to know about the wistfulness at the heart of this little man we find so funny.

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Fortunately, the camera that can be cruel is also kind, because the miraculously rediscovered footage comes to testify in Buster’s behalf. The camera sees his melancholy beauty just as it sees the news, when it’s fed the right subject, recontextualizing life and making it amazing again. A literal deus ex machina, a benevolent god from the machine, it’s film itself, or rather the film within the film, that furnishes the happy ending we all crave.

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This post is part of the Journalism in Classic Film Blogathon, hosted by Comet Over Hollywood and Lindsay’s Movie Musings. Please check out the other fabulous entries!

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Oh, and you didn’t think I’d end the post without this, did you? One of these men is Buster Keaton. Guess which.

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Screening Report: Laughing and Jammin’ with the Silents in Brandon, Vermont

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I live in the middle of nowhere. Hope it doesn’t shatter any illusions for you, dear readers, that I’m not sitting by the pool of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel with a Piña Colada.

I follow the screening reports of my blogger friends Will of Cinematically Insane and Aurora of Once Upon a Screen with interest and, if I’m honest, a fair dose of loving envy.

So, needless to say, when film culture comes to this sleepy neck of the woods, I do my best to be there.

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Each summer, writer-educator-composer-awesome-guy Jeff Rapsis enriches the little town of Brandon with a series of silent films and shows them as they were meant to be enjoyed: on a big screen with live accompaniment. Last night, Rapsis lent his musical talents to improvising along with Harold Lloyd’s Dr. Jack and Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances on his 70-pound musical synthesizer.

In a recent interview with the Rutland Herald, Rapsis likened his original performances to “‘Whose Line Is It Anyway?’ for movies. When it works well, nothing is better—you can’t write down the kind of music you come up with when it’s working right. I don’t even know where it comes from sometimes, I sit there as amazed as anybody when it comes together.”

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It certainly came together in Brandon Town Hall last night. The best screen comedy continues to feel fresh and imminent even years after its release—as though the ending might turn out different every time, as if Harold Lloyd might not win the girl, as if one of those great big papier-mâché boulders really might wipe out poor Buster. Rapsis’s splendidly paced improvisations enhanced that sense of risky timing, creating the illusion that the gags and pratfalls were unfolding spontaneously.

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For several years, the town of Brandon has been restoring its majestic town hall, which Rapsis praises for its beautiful acoustics. This marks my third summer travelling there to watch Rapsis perform along with a varying selection of silent films, from The General to The Phantom of the Opera.

The hall’s idiosyncratic projection system occasionally adds extra nail-biting tension to the screenings. When the picture started to skip and freeze during the poker scene in Dr. Jack last night, I nearly cracked under the pressure. Fortunately, the hall has no heating, and a pre-autumn draft quickly cooled me down. However, such foibles only make the experience more pleasurable and genuine. Today’s technical difficulties just substitute for the projection room mishaps of the 1920s.

vlcsnap-2013-09-15-22h20m49s254I love that the packed audiences filling the town hall echo the crowds that a Keaton or Lloyd film would’ve drawn back in the 1920s—people of all ages, looking for a good laugh. I mean, I’ve watched silents in total silence with a pretentious crew of proto-Godard hipsters at the Cinémathèque Français, and I infinitely prefer the down-to-earth glee of Brandon’s audience members, who go because it’s fun, not because it’s trendy. It warms the cockles of my heart to sit there chuckling along with whole families, from toddlers to grandparents, at movies made almost 100 years ago. I frequently worry that silent movies will only become more and more distant to today’s public, but the screening last night confirmed the universality of silent comedy and dispelled my fears.

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Hey, Buster, lighten up! We all still love you!

Jeff Rapsis not only provided delightful keyboard accompaniment for each film, but also said a few words to contextualize the two comedies. Offering a brief plot summary of Dr. Jack, he explained, “It takes place in a little town… which I always think of as Brandon, Vermont.” Sure enough, when Harold Lloyd encountered a roadblock of cows (what we call Vermont gridlock), the audience roared with laughs of recognition. Now, if I can just find a reasonable Dr. Jack equivalent in my town to cure my ills…

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Although I’d say the audience howled equally at each film, Dr. Jack seemed like the revelation of the night. I could perceive viewer reactions shifting from “Harold Who?” to “I LOVE him!” Unfortunately Lloyd’s own sensitivity about how and when his films could be shown have kept his masterpieces in relative obscurity. As Rapsis noted, “He kind of lost his audience over the years, but now he’s being rediscovered by a new generation.” Thanks to the evocative music, spectators quickly got into the spirit of the proceedings. The first big laugh actually came in response to an intertitle, for crying out loud! 

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Rapsis channeled Dr. Jack’s charming blend of sly trickery and quaint goodwill. I marvel at how the live score alternated between creating ambiance, commenting on the action, and even taking the place of sound effects—as with the thundering chords to punctuate the football that lands Dr. Von Saulsbourg’s hat in his own soup. The music also amped up the frenetic humor of vampire-ish Harold Lloyd as “Humpy” the escaped convict and the manic hijinks of the household he terrorizes to “cure” imaginary invalid Mildred Davis.

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Throughout Seven Chances, the score included a number of funny variations of Wagner’s Wedding March from Lohengrin. The upbeat tune, better known as “Here Comes the Bride” comically sounded out in ominous keys during James Shannon’s many marital strike-outs, as he rushes to get married in a matter of hours to inherit a fortune. However, when Buster finally walks off with the girl he loves, it was Mendelssohn’s joyful march that we heard. I was particularly impressed by how Rapsis sustained suspense throughout the climactic mob of brides chase sequence, which, just as it seems like it can’t get more absurd, somehow does.

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In a few weeks, on September 28, Jeff Rapsis will again be performing a live score for Seven Chances at the 21st Annual Buster Keaton Celebration in Buster’s birthplace of Iola, Kansas, so it was a real privilege for me to enjoy a taste, an intimate preview, of that wonderful event without having to fly across the country. Although he has provided a live score for the movie before, Rapsis told me that he specifically chose Seven Chances for the Brandon program far in advance, as an opportunity to “warm up” and “get the movie in my head” shortly before the big day in Kansas.

Screen Shot 2013-09-15 at 5.25.59 PM The electric combination of a brilliant recorded performance and a pitch-perfect, astonishingly synchronized live performance not only impressed me last night, but also will doubtlessly make Dr. Jack and Seven Chances feel a bit more alive when I watch them next—albeit with less interesting scores! Screenings like those at the town hall were the first to help me understand why every movie theater needed at least a violin and a pianist to provide live music in the silent era. You haven’t really seen comedies like Dr. Jack and Seven Chances until you’ve seen ’em this way. So, last night the quiet little town of Brandon vibrated with laughter, proving that silent comedies were never really silent—and neither were their audiences.

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Silent September! A Buffet of Free Silent Films

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A diva’s work is never done.

That’s what I thought the other day when I realized that I’ve been blogging (and tweeting and posting!) about classic films for a whole year.

I scoured the reaches of my imagination for some way to mark the occasion. And then, Turner Classic Movies solved the problem for me. Throughout this month, September 2013, the television epicenter of old movie love will be celebrating the milestones of film history. And I’m going with the flow.

Now, if I started blogging for one reason (other than preserving my sanity in the wake of my recent college graduation), it was because I wanted to share my passion for classic cinema with others. Over the past year, I have learned so much through my digital adventures and I very humbly hope that I’ve been able to give back a little, too. For the month of September, I’m trying something new—I’m going to concentrate primarily (perhaps entirely) on silent film.

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To get the ball rolling, I’ve created a YouTube playlist containing most of the silent films that will be airing on TCM this month. Below, you’ll find the same treasure trove of film history, hours of ground-breaking cinema that you can stream or download free of charge. I could name dozens of other great silent films that everyone should watch—and I will over the next 30 days—but these are the ones that you can check out instantly. So, pardon the glaring omissions! However, if you’ve never seen a silent film before, this is a good place to start, although you might not want to start with Intolerance… And if you’ve seen all of these films, well, now you have them all at your fingertips!

Watch, enjoy, and celebrate the Seventh Art in the first spectacular flush of her youth and beauty.

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Trip to the Moon (1902) – Georges Méliès

On YouTube.

Canned Harmony (1912) – Alice Guy

On YouTube.

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Falling Leaves (1912) – Alice Guy

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

Birth of a Nation (1916) – D.W. Griffith

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

Intolerance (1916) – D.W. Griffith

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

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The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) – Robert Wiene

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

Way Down East (1920) – D.W. Griffith

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

One Week (1920) – Edward F. Cline and Buster Keaton

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

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The Kid (1921) – Charlie Chaplin

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

Orphans of the Storm (1921) – D.W. Griffith

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

The Phantom Carriage (1921) – Victor Sjöström

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

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Häxan (1922) – Benjamin Christensen

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

Nanook of the North (1922) – Robert J. Flaherty

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

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Three Ages (1923) – Edward F. Cline and Buster Keaton

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

La Roue (1923) – Abel Gance

Part I and Part II on YouTube.

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The Thief of Bagdad (1924) – Raoul Walsh

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

Battleship Potemkin (1925) – Sergei Eisenstein

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

The General (1927) – Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

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Metropolis (1927) – Fritz Lang

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

Sunrise (1927) – F.W. Murnau

On YouTube.

Un Chien Andalou (1929) – Salvador Dali and Louis Buñuel

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

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The Goddess (1934) – Yonggang Wu

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.