Wong Kar Wai’s portraits of loneliness

In Days of Being Wild, a young man, York, strides to a cafe where a young woman works, opens a bottle of soda and proceeds to try and seduce her, it’s an act that’s performed by him over a period of time until she finally relents. Li-Zhen initially resists York’s attempts at seducing her but deep down, she welcomes the company, it doesn’t hurt he’s an attractive looking young man, and a relationship is formed but it’s framed on his terms. The moment Li-Zhen begins attaching herself to him by suggesting she move in with him, he immediately shuts down, when she asks him if he’ll marry her, he bluntly responds with no, Li-Zhen leaves and claims she’ll never come back.

This will be a pattern for York as he meets another young woman, Lulu at a local club where he’s beating another man for taking advantage of his mother, who is a courtesan. Lulu is loud and brash and she plays coy with the seduction attempts by York but like Li-Zhen, she still craves the affection or disaffection that York gives her. York’s friend Zeb is another of one of York’s devotees as he craves the attention that York receives from women but he has neither York’s attractiveness or his wealth. York was raised by a courtesan, Rebecca, who confided that he was adopted by her, yet refused to tell him who his real mother was out of a desire to keep him from leaving her.

Li-Zhen finds that letting go of York is tougher than she thought as she keeps returning to his apartment building where she is found by a Police Officer, Tide who brings York out to where Li-Zhen is waiting, she claims she has returned to get her things but that’s just an excuse. Lulu is in York’s apartment listening to the drama unfold and when Li-Zhen finally leaves, confronts York about his commitment to her but York doesn’t care, he’s distilled his entire life into not caring about anything except finding out who his real mother is. Lulu put’s up a front but she’s just as enthralled by York’s disaffection and aloofness, which is preferable to being alone.

Li-Zhen still hasn’t really got over York as she tries to stifle crying outside his apartment while Tide stands nearby trying not to look uncomfortable, Li-Zhen is forced to confess her emotional distress to Tide, her infatuation with York wasn’t so much about him but a way of stemming the tides of loneliness that swept over her since moving to HK from Macau, it was a connection that she needed, even if it resulted in pain for her, it was still a connection. It would take some more effort to finally move on from York but she found a better confidant in Tide in the process, even though their connection was brief, it was enough to allow her to accept her loneliness.

Rebecca announces to York that she’s leaving for the U.S. with her much younger lover, York finally get’s her to confess who his real mother is and leaves for the Phillipines, leaving his car with Zeb, who has become fixated with Zeb, even though she doesn’t love him. York left without saying goodbye to Lulu, which has left her bereft as she goes searching for him, even confronting Li-Zhen who tells her to get over it, after all, Li-Zhen did. Zeb’s attempts at seducing Lulu become increasingly pathetic bordering on abusive as he finally follows her in the rain, where she confronts him about his pathetic need to become York 2.0 which results in him physically assaulting her. Zeb finally realized he’ll never be like York the way he wants to be like him, sells the car and tells Lulu that if she can’t find York to come back to him.

York finally tracks down his mother but she refuses to see him which leaves him more adrift than ever, Tide, now a Sailor, discovers him lying in a gutter, drunk, and takes York back to his room to sober up. York and Tide hang out in a local hall where York is getting a passport from a local hoodlum and instead of paying, stabs the hoodlum instead forcing a confrontation between York, Tide & the hoodlum’s friends, this results in Tide shooting three men and getting slashed with a switchblade. While on the train, Tide confronts York about aloof attitude to everything, he calls him on his bullshit but York still doesn’t care. York is shot by assailant and as he dies, he realizes that he was never going to fly because he was dead from the moment he was born.

In a way this film reminds me of the Neil Young song ‘Out on the Weekend’ about disaffected young men hustling on the weekends. The film actually ends with a scene of a man preparing himself in a small room, for a night out, he could easily be someone like York but we’ll never know.

 

 

 

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On Dangerous Ground

Three men are shown as they prepare for an evening shift, two of them are married, one is single, all three are policeman. As they shuffle into the precinct, their commander relays the urgency of finding the men who shot and killed one of their own, to pound the beat and shake their sources for info. Their first stop is a bar, the people inside show open contempt to the policemen, Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan) is visibly upset by his treatment and they leave the premises. Pops Daly (Charles Kemper) is suffering from a sore shoulder so Joe and the third policeman, Pete Santos (Anthony Ross) visit a local doctor to treat it. Santos comments that Wilson is a tough man to get along with, Pops makes the observation that being a cop is a tough occupation, he just takes it harder than most. While Pops is being treated, Wilson get’s a lead on a suspect involved in the murder of the policeman, he and Santos visit the apartment of a woman Myrna Bowers (Cleo Moore) who is romantically linked to their suspect.

Myrna plays coy about her relationship with the suspect, Bernie Tucker (Richard Irving) until they find a photo of them together, Jim grills her for Bernie’s whereabouts using physical intimidation, Myrna responds by asking Jim if he’ll use his big arms to squeeze the info out of her, and he does. Jim and Pete find Bernie and it’s clear he’s not going to give up info on others involved in the crime. It’s in this scene that we finally witness the coiled rage that bubbles underneath Wilson’s surface, he beats the info out of Bernie while screaming ‘Why do you make me do it? You know you’re gonna talk! I’m gonna make you talk! I always make you punks talk! Why do you do it? Why?”, Wilson’s violent methods prove successful but he’s reprimanded by his superior Capt. Brawley (Ed Begley), the man he beat is being defended by a lawyer, who accuse Wilson of police brutality.

Myrna is brutally attacked, Wilson, Santos & Pops arrive on the scene to find the attacker fleeing the scene, Wilson is enraged and brutally beats him, Pops accosts Wilson who defends his actions by stating a police officer is nothing but a garbage collector, he asks how Pops get’s through it, Pops is pragmatic about it, he leaves it all behind when he goes home, he doesn’t let it infect his home life. Wilson is upbraided again but this time, he is sent away to a small town to help with the local murder of a girl. Wilson arrives to find the police unable to cope with a crime of this magnitude. Wilson attempts to interview the sister of the murdered girl but finds her mother & father, Walter Brent (Ward Bond) unwilling to co-operate, the father is too enraged to hand over the murderer to the police, he wants vengeance.

The murderer is soon sighted and a car chase begins, Wilson & Walter chase the killer to a remote house where they find a woman, Mary Malden (Ida Lupino) living there, they interrogate her about whether she’s seen the killer, it slowly becomes evident that she couldn’t have seen anything, she’s blind. Mary is clearly hiding something though and it becomes evident she knows more than she’s letting on.

What I find interesting is how this film approaches the idea of Toxic Masculinity, 40 years before the term had been coined. Jim Wilson is a man who is unable to separate himself from the pressures of his job, the daily exposure to acts of cruelty, the contempt that’s thrown in his face, he becomes detached until he meets Mary, who appreciates Wilson’s lack of pity for her when he discovers she is blind. It’s a familiar type of love story, the wounded male healed with the love of a good woman and it’s a credit to both Robert Ryan and Ida Lupino that this love story works. Ryan has always excelled at playing characters with a seething anger at their core but maintain a stable facade and he does some of his best acting in this film. There’s a scene early in the film where he interacts with a young boy outside his apartment building, it’s a reminder that he’s capable of human interaction but it’s fleeting.

Walter Brent is a father who is willing to go to any lengths necessary to kill the man who murdered his daughter, he’s operating on blind rage, when he finally catches up with the murderer it ends in a fashion where he get’s what he wanted but not in the way he wanted it, it’s a like a fog lifts and he realises that the murderer he was chasing was a young boy, as a result that rage subsides, it’s replaced by a kind of empathy for the murderer’s sister, Mary.

The murderer in question is revealed to be a young man who is neither evil nor saintly, he’s driven by impulses that he cannot understand. Wilson begins the film with a belief that violence is the only natural weapon at his disposal but his scene with the murderer finds him attempting to solve the situation through means of communication and he very nearly succeeds until Brent bursts in still operating on blind rage and events reach their natural conclusion.

Nicholas Ray has explored the psyche of wounded men in other films such as In a Lonely Place and Rebel Without a Cause but here, he also finds the humanity within those wounded men.

The Major and The Minor

In 1941, after eight years of being a screenwriter, Billy Wilder decided to try his hand at directing again (he’d previously directed a feature back in France) and with his collaborator Charles Brackett adapted a play ‘Connie Goes Home’ and convinced producer Arthur Hornblow Jr to turn it into a movie. Wilder immediately thought of Ginger Rogers for the lead role and, as luck would have it, she was a recent Oscar winner who shared the same agent as Wilder. Wilder asked the agent to pitch Rogers on his behalf and a meeting was arranged. Rogers became enamoured of Wilder and his pitch and agreed to do the film.

When we first meet the heroine, Susan Applegate, she’s introduced walking into a building for an appointment which all the men assume she’s there for more than just business, her client Albert Osborne (Robert Benchley) immediately uses the appointment as an excuse to pathetically seduce her while his wife is away, it’s the last straw for Susan and she decides it’s time to go back to Stevenson, Iowa, to a dull existence, she has the correct fare saved up and, by god, she’s going to use it. The final kick in the pants is that the fare was raised and there’s a coach worker’s strike, leaving her stranded at the train station. Susan is undeterred though, as she immediately sees an opportunity by overhearing that children are charged a half-fare, a lightbulb goes off and she sneaks into the ladies room and emerges as a twelve year old (it’s a ludicrous concept when you think about it) and pays a stranger to pretend to be her father.

It’s not long before the ruse starts to show it’s seams as the guards asking for a ticket start to see through Susan’s obvious scam and quiz her about it, it’s only when she’s caught smoking that the jig is up and she’s chased through the train until she hides out in a compartment occupied by a man, Phillip Kirby (Ray Milland). Kirby fails to see through her disguise due to a defective eye and due to a thunderstorm and a flood, the train is forced to stop, leaving her stranded once again, until Kirby convinces her to stay at the military academy he lives and works at. The first person to see through Susan’s disguise is an adolescent with a fascination for biology Lucy (Diana Lynn). She agrees to keep her mouth shut only if Susan helps her scupper the plans of her older sister Pamela to keep her fiance, Philip Kirby, at the base permanently.

In a lesser director’s hand’s this could’ve been a disastrous film, the sexual politics alone could’ve sunk this film but Wilder & Brackett are smart filmmakers and they manage to navigate the film’s loaded premise with veritable skill. The film’s humor is largely predicated on Susan having to navigate the hormonal minefield of a boy’s military academy, as she is basically handed over to a group of boy’s who each have an allotted time to spend with her, and that time is largely used by the boys to find ways to kiss her, the most effective being Maginot line method, some succeed, some don’t. There’s a scene where Kirby attempts to instruct Su-Su about the realities of living on a base filled with boys, despite Wilder’s skill it still manages to veer very close to uncomfortable territory, especially when Kirby closes his one eye and sees how very attractive Su-Su is.

Ginger Rogers. to her credit, plays the role of both adult and child with equal verve, it’s a tough role to play as Rogers is clearly a conventionally attractive women, even when she’s dressed as a twelve year old, it’s hard to see past the fact that it’s clearly a grown women playing dress-up, especially during the ball sequence (the Veronica Lake gag is an all-timer) where she’s dressed to the nines and clearly starting to have strong feelings for Philip Kirby. She also get’s to showcase the dancing skills that made her famous during one scene but the fact that she’s trying to seduce a succession of young boys into leaving their post so she can make a long distance call just gives the scene a weird vibe.

The ending though, is another matter as Susan finally arrives home and is lazing about, presumably thinking about Kirby when she get’s a call from Kirby, who is looking for Su-Su to deliver something from Lucy. Susan portrays another ruse as she convinces her mother to let her borrow her clothes and glasses to fool Kirby into thinking that she’s Su-Su’s mother. It works but then we find Susan waiting at the train station where Kirby just happens to be waiting, it finally dawns on Kirby that Su-Su is in fact, a grown woman and after they kiss, they run off together, there’s no tacit admission of Susan pretending to be a child nor Kirby scolding her for it, just a happy Hollywood ending. Wilder always loved lacing subversive elements into his films, it’s one of his trademarks as both a writer and a director and this film is no different.

Wuxia & the blurred lines of gender.

In King Hu’s Dragon Inn, a large man and his companion, a woman clearly dressed up as a man knock on the door of an inn, after much arguing they’re allowed to stay in one of the rooms. The fact that the woman is clearly a woman dressed as a man is never commented on to any great degree, it’s just accepted, it’s a trope that has long existed in the Wuxia universe. King Hu would use a similar device in Come Drink with Me with Cheng Pei Pei, she posed as a male figure of authority until it’s revealed she’s really a woman with her own battalion of female guards. Women in Wuxia films usually fall into two categories, female warriors or demure women, throughout the sixties the Shaw Bros. were largely powered by women at the box office until the tide shifted and male leads began to dominate instead but their bread and butter was in Wu Xia films. During the late seventies, director Chu Yuan directed a number of Wu Xia films for the Shaw Bros. but it was in Clans of Intrigue that Chor introduced the concept of transgender and bisexuality into the world of cinematic Wu Xia, the film starts largely as a murder mystery as Chu Liu Xiang (Ti Lung) after having drinks with an old friend Monk Wu Hua (Yueh Hua) is confronted by a woman, Gong Nan Yan (Nora Miao) an emissary of the holy water palace, who accuses Chu of stealing some of the Holy Water from their enclave and also committing a series of murders, he negotiates to solve the mystery within a month, if not, the Mistress of the Palace will kill him.

The plot for this film isn’t high art, as Chu navigates his way towards the murderer, it also contains a subplot involving Gong and Monk Wu are carrying on an affair despite the fact that Gong and her mistress, Princess Yin Chi (Betty Pei Ti) are also intimately involved, he too is carrying on an affair with Princess Yin. It’s eventually revealed that Monk Wu was born as a girl to a half-japanese Iga Ninja, when her father was killed by four prominent members of different martial arts schools. She trained under a blind priest before mysteriously developing into a male at the age of fifteen. This newfound power allowed her to operate as both male and female within the Wu Xia world, and allowed Monk Wu to exact revenge on the men who killed her father without being traced. It’s all nonsense when you think about it, but consider how revolutionary it is, to have a transgender character in such a prominent role (I’m aware it’s an unflattering portrayal but still, it’s something).

In the early nineties, producer Tsui Hark attempted to revive the Wu Xia genre by adapting the Louis Cha novel Swordsman for Sam Hui to star in and offered it to King Hu to direct, it was a troubled production and King Hu eventually quit forcing Tsui Hark to take over directing duties, The resulting film has Sam Hui as Ling Hu Chong and his sidekick Yue Ling Shan aka Kiddo (Cecilia Yip) as they arrive to deliver a box and a message to Lin Zhen Nan, which goes disastrously wrong as Lin is attacked by a powerful eunuch Gu Jinfu (Lau Shun) and his second in command Ouyang Cheng (Jacky Cheung). A sacred scroll was stolen from the royal palace and Gu is doing damage control by killing Lin and retrieving the scroll but Lin has hidden it, he passes on the whereabouts of the scroll to Ling and to tell his son of it’s location. On the run, Ling and Kiddo encounter Qu Yang (Lam Shing-Ying) and Liu Sheng-Feng (Wu Ma) as they’re also being tracked by Zuo Lengshan (Yuen Wah) for being senior members of the Sun Moon Sect. Qu gives Ling his treasured Gu Qin before committing suicide to be with his dead friend. Ling and Kiddo run into gang of smugglers led by Ren Ying Ying (Sharla Cheung) and her second in command Blue Phoenix (Fennie Yuen). Ouyang poses as the dead son of Lin and attempts to infiltrate the Mount Hua sect where Ling finally shows up and mistakenly gives Ouyang the location of the scroll, he’s poisoned for his efforts. Kiddo is revealed to be the daughter of Mount Hua sect leader Yue Bu Quan (Lau Siu-Ming) and to be married off to Ouyang. It’s revealed Yue is also after the sacred scroll for his own purposes.

For the majority of this film, Kiddo is posing as a man largely for comedic effect until she’s finally revealed to be the daughter of a prominent sect leader, who follows the traditional path of marrying her off, much to her furious protestations. The relationship between Ren and Blue Phoenix contains subtle lesbian overtones but their relationship remains largely professional and antagonistic, Ren constantly chastises Blue for her wanton desire for men. Blue  takes advantage of a drunken Kiddo and takes her into a room planning on raping her unaware that Kiddo is actually a woman, it’s lucky that Ling shows up to engage in a fight with Blue, who is punished by Ren for her reckless behaviour. This film is largely overshadowed by it’s sequel, which is a shame because it’s just as entertaining.

Buoyed by the success of the first film, Tsui went into production with the sequel but recast the roles of Ling and Kiddo with Jet Li and Joey Yung and Ren with Rosamund Kwan. Following the events of the first film, Ling & Kiddo now roam the Jiang Hu with the rest of the Mount Hua sect where they settle on a small abandoned inn. They find dead bodies but ignore them until scouts from the imperial palace show up and they’re forced to abandon the place but not before Ling tries to rescue his horse from being taken which leads to his first encounter with Asia the Invincible (Brigitte Lin) who encounters him with a certain bemusement. Ling, Kiddo & crew re-unite with Chief Ying (Rosamund Kwan) who informs them that her Uncle Asia imprisoned her father Wu (Yen Shi-Kwan) and took over the Sun Moon Sect with the help of two Japanese refugees, Chimp (Chin Kar Lok) and Hattori Sengun (Waise Lee).

Asia’s ambitions extend much further than the Sun Moon Sect as she plans on full scale revolution against the Ming Empire with the knowledge of the sacred scroll which has made him extremely powerful. Ling attempts to infiltrate Asia’s compound and ends up running into Asia, who he still doesn’t understand who she really is and, after escaping with her and getting knocked out, ends up in prison only to discover Wu (Yen Shi-Kwan) in the jail cell opposite, he contrives a plan of escape and finds Wu chained up in his cell in a particularly brutal manner, Ling frees Wu and they both attempt to escape, Wu dispatches the guards using his essence absorbing skill which leaves Ling feeling a little disturbed. Wu reveals himself to be a more than harsh leader who wants to find Asia and exact a most painful revenge. Asia learns of Wu’s escape and sends her assassins to eliminate him and whoever is helping him while Ling goes back to Asia’s compound, who convinces her lover Shi-Shi (Candace Wu) to pose as her and make love to Ling. She agrees while Asia goes to find Wu which results in Asia killing just about everyone except for Ying, Kiddo and Wu’s Lieutenant. Wu reveals that Asia has been using the sacred scroll to make himself more powerful by castrating himself and transforming into a woman. Ling, Kiddo, Ying & Wu confront Asia at Blackhill Cliff.

In some ways this film harkens back to the Shaw Bros. era of Chu Yuan films. Asia the Invincible is one of cinema’s greatest villains thanks to the force of nature that is Brigitte Lin, she conveys a certain grace even while she’s killing people in particularly gruesome fashion. Ling & Kiddo continue their affectionate relationship in much the same manner as the first film, Kiddo pines for Ling, her attempts to maintain a more feminine presence are played for comedic effect. The love story between Asia and Ling evolves primarily from mistaken identity but it’s fascinating to watch as Asia finds herself bemused at first by Ling, although her true feelings are reserved for Shi-Shi, who recoils in horror when she discover’s Asia’s secret and finally commits suicide after making love to Ling. Asia looks genuinely hurt when Ling rejects her after discovering her true identity but plays it off, her refusal to admit whether it was her that Ling made love to is the last desperate act of a scorned woman, even though she was once a man. The relationship between Ying and Blue remains largely the same as the first film, with Blue maintaining affectionate feelings for Ying but aware that Ying loves Ling and just wants her to confess her love for him. Wu emerges as the film’s true villain as he once stakes his masculine dominance and Asia’s feminine presence, although malevolent and no less destructive is banished (she would return in the sequel ‘East is Red’ though)

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon would adopt the trope of a young woman dressing up as a young man and, in accordance with the times it was released in, make the trope an act of defiance on the part of the young woman, Jen (Zhang Zi Yi) as she flees an an arranged marriage and enters an inn, disguised as a man, and proceeds to destroy it after being challenged by a group of men, as is the customary way of the Wu Xia world. I find these movies endlessly fascinating for their approach to these things, where else would you get love triangles of men in love in with women who were once men or women dressing up as men and no-one cares.

Lawrence of Arabia & The Cult of Personality

Lawrence is a man who badly wants to be someone else, when we first meet him, it’s clear that he does not belong in the rigid confines of the military and his interactions with the rank and file just increase his desire for isolation, both mental and physical. Lawrence is finally given the chance to move beyond the confines of his station with a secondment to Prince Faisal with his mission being an assessment of Faisal and to report back. Lawrence begins his great romance with the desert, to him, it represents a certain purity that does not exist in England. Prince Faisal does not share his view of the desert, to him it’s a lonely, desolate place.

They say a man’s character is revealed through adversity so in Lawrence’s case it revealed an Iron Will to succeed. It also revealed his compassion as his decision to go back for Gassim is considered suicide by Ali but Lawrence proves them all wrong as he returns to Ali with Gassim in tow, Ali is so moved that he burns all of Lawrence’s clothes and effectively make him an honorary Arab, this is probably the worst thing he could’ve done even if it was done out of a sense of love. Lawrence’s next move once they had crossed the nefud to convince Auda Abu Tayi, leader of the Howitat to join them in securing the garrison at Aqaba. Lawrence once again succeeds by manipulating Auda by focusing on his greed and it works. The attack on Aqaba is an astonishing success, it took everyone by surprise except for Lawrence, he gambled and it paid off.

The second half of the film finds Lawrence waging a war with the Turks by destroying the supply lines with Ali and Auda as his lieutenants. Lawrence has started to believe his own hype thinking he can only be killed by a ‘golden bullet’, it’s this line of thinking that allowed his ego to overtake him completely and he formed a kind of Jesus complex, even as his men begin to resent his attitude that they should move mountains for him. Lawrence’s final act of hubris occurs as he enters Derra, a Turkish stronghold thinking that he can pass unnoticed as an Arab, it backfires horribly as Lawrence is subjected to a beating (and implied rape). The idea that he could conceivably pass for an Arab is laughable and he finds out the hard way. It’s also the turning point where he realizes that he will never be an Arab and so flees back to the British military, it’s telling that his efforts to fit in with the establishment just comes off as brown-nosing.  It’s uncertain whether Lawrence’s desire to be an Arab stems from self-loathing or his contempt for England or both but it’s clear he fetishizes the idea of Arabia and the people within it.

Lawrence’s guerilla warfare is taking a toll on him mentally, despite his best efforts to retreat to a sense of normalcy, the military brass just want the winning streak to continue so General Allenby convinces Lawrence to join them in the final push on Damascus, at this point though, Lawrence has been pushed to his breaking point, his army of followers have now been reduced to paid mercenaries. Ali remains Lawrence’s conscience up until Lawrence and his army come across a column of Turkish soldiers including their wounded, his decision to attack the column is what truly damns him. It’s a massacre, Jackson Bentley, the reporter who has been cultivating the legend of Lawrence through the newspaper is disgusted by what Lawrence has become.

As an act of redemption Lawrence and his army arrive at Damascus before Allenby. Lawrence tries to form a kind of UN with the Arab tribes but it’s pretty much a disaster as the council devolves into in-fighting and squabbling while there is no power and a fire breaks out, in the end, Lawrence is deserted by the tribes, all except Auda and Ali. Lawrence’s dream of a United Arab States had come to an end along with Lawrence’s usefulness to both Faisal & Allenby. In some ways, he got what he wanted, to be ordinary but in the end Auda is right when he said “For you, there is only the desert”.

Evolution of Silent Cinema: A Star is Born.

As the movie business began to establish itself, actors flocked to embrace the emerging art form.  In France, a little known theatre actor called Max Linder began appearing in short comedy films for Pathe in 1905. The silent comedian was born. Max cultivated an onscreen image of a wealthy man about town who frequently ended up in trouble due to his penchant for attractive women.  Linder’s apprenticeship with Pathe paid off as he steadily became one of the most recognizable actor’s in the world and up until the advent of the first world war, Max Linder was the number one star in Europe. Linder returned to film following the end of WW1 but the experience had left him with chronic depression that would follow him for the rest of his life.

Across the pond, another actor treading the boards in a vaudeville troupe who went by the name Charlie Chaplin was invited by the New York Motion Picture Company to join them in the hope of replacing current star Fred Mace. Chaplin’s first film for Keystone ‘Making a Living’ received a lukewarm response but it’s Chaplin’s decision to create the most enduring character of his career for his second film ‘Mabel’s Strange Predicament’ that would have the most lasting impact, “the tramp” was born. Chaplin’s co-star Mabel Normand was a gifted comedienne in her own right, having written and directed dozens of shorts, she took on Chaplin and mentored him in the film industry. Chaplin’s directorial debut ‘Caught in the Rain’ was successful enough to allow him to direct the remainder of his shorts until Essay lured him away with a more substantial paycheck. Chaplin’s tenure at Essanay allowed him more creative control over the films he made, he recruited a woman he met in a cafe called Edna Purviance to co-star with him in the majority of his films, no surprise that a romance developed that lasted until 1917. Chaplin would continue to refine his tramp character for the rest of his career.

Mabel Normand’s career seems dotted with scandals which have overshadowed her contribution to film as both an actress and director. Normand began her career at Vitagraph Studios but quickly moved over to D.W. Griffiths Biograph Studios where she landed a leading role in Griffiths ‘Her Awakening’, she met Mack Sennett during her time there and began a relationship with him, when he moved to California to establish his own studio, Keystone, she went with him. Normand’s star quickly rose during her tenure at Keystone as she proved very adept at comedy. It was Normand who convinced Sennett to give Chaplin another chance after the relatively poor reception of Chaplin’s debut. Normand was involved in no less than three scandals, one of which involved another of Sennett’s star’s Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Despite his size, Arbuckle was a remarkably adept physical comedian, towering over his co-stars and leading ladies.  Arbuckle’s career began with amateur talent contest, which wasn’t going well until he performed a somersault into the orchestra to avoid the shepherd’s crook which pulled them offstage, the audience loved it, Arbuckle’s vaudeville career had begun. Arbuckle moved through a number of different theatre companies until he arrived at Selig Polyscope Company, where his film career began before moving onto Keystone.

Paramount managed to lure him away from Keystone with a more substantial paycheck, during this time Arbuckle set-up his own company, Comique Studios and recruited another vaudeville alumni, Buster Keaton. Keaton’s debut was in ‘The Butcher Boy’ and they went on to make 14 films together and formed a close relationship (Keaton and Chaplin were the only two who vouched for his character during the trial of Virginia Rappe’s death). Keaton had performing in the vaudeville circuit since he was a child, he performed with his family as they were known as the ‘Three Keatons’, it was here that Keaton learned how to perform physical comedy by doing trick falls, part of the act included Buster being thrown around by his father, sometimes into the orchestra pit, sometimes against the scenery, they achieved this by having a suitcase handle sown into Buster’s clothing. Buster was often having to prove there was no child abuse as he learned to land safely thus avoiding bruises or injuries. It was this training that proved tremendously useful for his career as a physical comedian and allowed him to perform incredibly dangerous stunts. Keaton would eventually transcend Arbuckle and become the sole rival to Chaplin.

Arbuckle would also co-star with another silent comedian of a different kind, Harold Lloyd. Lloyd’s image was that of a bespectacled man in a straw hat, like Keaton, Lloyd was a child of the theatre but he gravitated towards film, he began his career at Edison film studios before moving to California and joining Keystone. Lloyd also worked as an extra for Universal, it was here that he would meet his creative partner in crime, Hal Roach. Lloyd’s commitment to performing often dangerous stunts himself would eventually prove fatal as he was seriously injured while holding a prop bomb that was supposed to be a smoke pot, it exploded. Lloyd’s Thumb and forefinger were blown off as a result.

While Keaton, Chaplin & Lloyd were presented as loveable goofballs, there was another actor who displayed the same physicality but with movie star charisma, his name was Douglas Fairbanks. From an early age, he was involved in the local theatre, he dropped out of school at 15 to join an acting troupe which crossed the country. After a couple of years, Fairbanks travelled to New York and began appearing in broadway shows while holding down a day job, he eventually got married and had a son before leaving with his family to L.A. where he began his first film engagement with Triangle Pictures under the tutelage of D.W. Griffiths. The first film he starred in ‘The Lamb’ showed off his natural athleticism but he was instead cast in a number of romantic comedies before signing with Paramount. He began a whirlwind romance with Mary Pickford and it wasn’t long before they were dubbed Hollywood royalty as their fame and status rose. Fairbanks would be most well known for the adventure costume picture which allowed for his charisma and athletic skills to be put to excellent use, you could say he was Hollywood’s first action hero.

At the time Mary Pickford met Douglas Fairbanks, she was already a rising star. Born in Canada, she began her career like most others in the theatre, treading the boards and getting nowhere, it wasn’t until 1909 when she tested for a role in a Biograph Company film that she caught the eye of D.W. Griffith. Pickford was cast in both bit part and leading roles, as she gained momentum in Biograph and worked for a variety of different film companies over a number of years. It wasn’t until her performance in ‘Tess of the Storm Country’ that she finally ascended into the stratosphere. Mary Pickford was one of the first actresses to fully take control of her career and utilized her business acumen to become a power player in Hollywood. Within three years of acting in features, she became a producer and was involved in every aspect of the making of her film, for all intents and purposes, she was a movie mogul. She solidified this position by forming United Artists with Chaplin, D.W. Griffith & Douglas Fairbanks, a creative enterprise which allowed independent film producers access to theatre screens owned by UA and also temporarily unbooked venues owned by other companies. She ran the company with Chaplin until 1959 (he’d already left by 1955) before selling her shares for three million dollars.

The era of the Hollywood star had begun.

Evolution of Silent Cinema: The Business of Film

By the turn of the century, the moving image had moved beyond it’s basic platform, there was a constant state of experimentation with the form, from close-ups to linking footage together to form the basis of editing. As film began to emerge as a public form of entertainment, it wasn’t hard to see there was money to be made from screening these films. In 1905, “The Nickelodeon” in Pittsburgh, began screening films on a regular basis, the most popular of these screenings would be “The Chase” film, the first example originating in England by James Williamson, who made a film called ‘Stop Thief’. Others soon followed his example and began creating narrative short films which the protagonist would be chased in some form or another.

By 1907, theatre’s specifically designed for screening film began operating in the U.S. Britain & France. Pathe were the first to capitalize on the increasing demand for programmes by the emerging theatre chains, the programme was usually a 30 minute affair accompanied with live musicians to enhance the experience. In the initial stages, Pathe would sell their films for a flat fee but soon came to realize that there was more money to be made by renting out their films to be screened. Not to be outdone, the U.S. began increasing their production output.

As Cinema began to spread throughout Europe, other countries began to make their own strides in forming production companies, the most unlikely becoming one of Europe’s most important production centres, Denmark. Ole Olsen, seeing an opportunity, founded Nordisk and began cranking out films for the local market, he eventually produced 67 films with his collaborator, director Viggo Larsen. Sweden, Russia & Germany soon followed suit, bringing their own ideas to the table but the first world war derailed their efforts leaving the U.S. to pick up the slack, as their film technique improved so did their audiences both at home and overseas.

For more info:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_film