As someone who has spent a lot of time in cemeteries studying gravestones, it dawned on me tonight that old gravestones have a lot in common with silent films. Many of them have aged poorly and have fallen apart. They can be difficult to decipher. Many of them have been long forgotten due to time and progress. And a the majority of people don't appreciate their historical, cultural and personal value.
While I'm definitely a taphophile, I'm also a bit of a cinefile. I love movies. I've always loved them. I don't consider myself a true film aficionado, I do know movies. Growing up, there were few movies playing in the theaters that I hadn't seen. Today that's not the case, because I have a kid, a husband and a full-time job. But as a teen and younger, I constantly watched movies. If it was made in the 80s, odds are I've seen it.
My interest in silent films is quite recent. Honestly I don't know what started it. I'd seen the occasional silent film over the years since at least high school. I specifically remember seeing "The Phantom of the Opera" on Halloween night during my senior of high school. There was a live organist, and it was awesome. Then a few years later in college I took a film history class and watched more ("Birth of a Nation," "Potemkim" and "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari").
Actually, I do know what started it--it was my trip to Hollywood in June 2014. Of course it was.
As I mentioned before, my love affair with Hollywood has been going on for years. I would daydream about the movies and being a part of them. I didn't want to be an actor (though I have dabbled a tiny bit), I wanted to direct and write and produce. I wanted the movies to be mine. I wanted to be the movies.
While we were out in California last year, it really hit me what it was about Hollywood that I loved so much. It wasn't the TMZ-style drama or making kazillions of dollars. What inspired me were the people who made movies for the love of them. The early innovators who thought, "What if we did this and made it into something grand?" The people with vision--Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, Cecil B. DeMille, Lois Weber and my favorite early filmmaker, Georges Méliès. Oh, did that man have vision!
Tonight I watched Georges Méliès' "Cinderella" (or "Cendrillon"), and it's just magical. For real, he uses lots of magic tricks. He was the master at making people "magically" appear and disappear via the wonders of editing. His work is also very theatrical. Elaborate stage sets, a dozen or more actors on the stage at a time, dancing, and the feel of something alive.
According to Archive.org, "Possibly the earliest film version of Cinderella, Cendrillion (1899) was landmark for Georges Méliès; it founded the techniques and tricks he would later master and become famous for, earning him the title of The Cinemagician." How great is that title?
Méliès didn't just take the Cinderella story verbatim and make it frame by frame. The film the link above takes you to starts with the scene where the fairy godmother is changing the mice (really BIG ones!) into footmen. After taking care of everyone and turning an unbelievably light-weight pumpkin brought in by Cinderella into a coach, off goes Cinderella to the fancy ball. It doesn't take long for her to make an impact on the prince, which is good since, in moments, she is back at the house in her rag dress. That's when the fun begins.
Not only is Cinderella sad that she had a curfew, now the clocks themselves start mocking her! It's fantastic! It's worth watching the 6-minute piece just for that scene. God love Méliès. I know I do. I wish I could have been in one of his films. How fanciful and wonderful it would have been.
I got a little sidetracked there! What inspires me about Hollywood ... people like Méliès who poured (and pour in present tense because there are still people out there) their heart and souls into their films. The innovators, the experimenters, the ones who literally risked life and limb to make the movies. If you watch an early film with crazy stunts in it, the stunt work was done by stunt people as well as the main actors. And stunt work wasn't regulated and surrounded by safety precautions like it is today. Yes, there are people doing dangerous things in modern film, but back then, it was the Wild West. People would get trampled by horses or drown in scenes filmed on rapids.
So I found that those who inspire me most are the people of Old Hollywood. The ones who came to the desert and built it into the dream town it is today. No matter how rough the business of film is, it's still part of the dream for many people. "If I just get that one chance ...!"
I'll take you, Hollywood, the good and the bad, the glamorous and the atrocious. And damned if I don't get the thrill of "Anything's possible!" when I see that Hollywood sign up in the distance.
Silent film stars, I'm going to find you and introduce you to the people of today. You deserve to be respected and remembered. Your contributions to the make-believe world that helps keep us sane deserve to be recognized.
Starting with you, ladies. After some months on hiatus from this book, I'm back, baby. My trip this month to Los Angeles has reinvigorated me, and I'm ready to dig into the book as well as our upcoming web series, Tomb Trippin'.
See you in the stars!
I'm the author of a number of cemetery books and am now writing one about the graves of silent film stars, starting with the ladies. Who would you like to see included?
More Silent Film Resources
• Silentology blog