Quiet Desperation

There are no words for these classic films


Silents are golden.

(Microsoft Word is telling me there’s a typo in that sentence, but it’s not true.)

Silent films are golden to me.

Many silent films and directors and performers were great, and most of them, except Charlie Chaplin, have been forgotten. Gore Vidal referred to it as “the United States of Amnesia.”

Many silent films are far better than films that are being made today.

I have about 1,600 cable channels, I watch six of them, and I can’t live without one of them. Turner Classic Movies.

I was a film history minor in college: I couldn’t get enough of films then, and I can’t get enough of films now. Good ones, that is.

I used to drive all over Los Angeles just to see a vintage film, like “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday,” or “Sullivan’s Travels,” or “The 39 Steps.”

Turner Classic Movies spoils me. I don’t have to drive anywhere, and they are always open.

Turner shows rarities I had never heard of, like “He Who Gets Slapped,” starring Lon Chaney, and “Jewelry Robbery,” starring Kay Francis.

My film history studies naturally began with silent films, and because most of them were short (“two reelers,” they were called), we watched a lot of them.

Every film history survey course begins with “The Great Train Robbery” and “A Trip to the Moon.”

“The Great Train Robbery” was made in 1903, and it’s significant because of its use of then-unconventional techniques and devices, but it’s not particularly entertaining.

“A Trip to the Moon” was made in 1902, and it’s still a dazzling example of film ingenuity. You may have seen the memorable shot of the space capsule landing on “The Man on the Moon’s” eye.

Chaplin should be remembered. He was brilliant. I recommend “City Lights.” I have watched the ending 50 times, and I still get emotional about it.

I also recommend Chaplin’s “Modern Times,” although it is not entirely silent.

Appreciation is shown for silent films in two notable “talkies.”

Everyone has seen “Singin’ in the Rain.” Everyone should see “Sunset Boulevard.”

“Sunset Boulevard” is on my Top Ten list.

Look for Buster Keaton at the card table. Who?

Keaton was just as good as Chaplin. He made a bad career decision, and drank too much, and disappeared, but then he married a woman who was 23 years younger than he was, and she is credited with saving his life and restoring his career.

Keaton did all of his own stunts, and some of them were breathtaking. The most famous one, in “Steamboat Bill, Jr.,” required absolute precision, otherwise a two-ton, two-story building façade would have killed him when it toppled. He was standing within the clearance of a single open window.

Some have said Keaton was depressed at the time about his career and his failing marriage, and accepted the possibility he wouldn’t survive the stunt.

I mentioned his career mistake. His early films were produced by his own production company, and it allowed him to create on the spot, and to take full advantage of his own inspirations. Then he signed a contract with MGM, and MGM took the reins.

In 1965, a year before Keaton died, the Venice Film Festival paid tribute to him, and the longest standing ovation in the festival’s history — over 10 minutes — moved Keaton to tears.

It’s important to me to remember those who came first, and never forget.

Silents, please.

Craig Marshall Smith is an artist, educator and Highlands Ranch resident. He can be reached at craigmarshallsmith@comcast.net.


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