Monday, September 9, 2013

Striking stills from silent films

So many silent films have been lost or destroyed in one manner or another that many of the era's once-iconic actors are relatively unknown. Both they and the films they were in are brought into focus once again in David S. Shields' Still: American Silent Motion Picture Photography, which collects the groundbreaking work of early cinematographers and still photographers. Stills were used to lure folks into the picture shows, and much care was lavished on them. The images I've selected from the book portray a few relatively famous faces and one or two who have perhaps vanished from our collective consciousness. Above, Alla Nazimova as Salomé, captured by Arthur F. Rice in 1923. Inspired by Aubrey Beardsley, the costume designs for this film were by Natacha Rambova, who was married to Rudolf Valentino. (All photos University of Chicago Press.)
Famously known for Dracula and his cult film Freaks (banned from screenings in Great Britain until 1962), director Tod Browning was a lover of the eerie and macabre. The 1927 silent London After Midnight has been lost, but this expressionistic image conveys its dark mood.
This 1923 portrait of Clara Bow was taken by Max Munn Autrey when "the 'It' girl" was on the cusp of fame, making the leap from a  tenement in Prospect Heights, New York, to stardom in Hollywood. (Like Garbo, she awaited the ministrations of its hair and makeup minions to tame her unruly do.)
Known mostly for his performance as Messala in the 1925 version of Ben Hur, Francis X (Xavier) Bushman starred in nearly 200 pictures, most of which have vanished. This haunting still was taken by Jack Freulich to promote the lost film The Grip of the Yukon (1928).
Nelson Evans took this "candid" of comic actor (and Mack Sennett Bathing Beauty) Marie Prevost in 1917.
One of the most famous of the personages appearing in the book is Hollywood legend Lillian Gish. This still promotes The Wind, by Swedish director Victor Sjöström. Shot on location on the Mojave Desert, it showed Gish being terrorized by nature as well as by man. Today's actors would demand stunt doubles in a heartbeat, but Gish was buffeted by wind machines for Sjöström and nearly froze going out on ice floes for D. W. Griffith.
Treat yourself to a silent film festival with Lois Weber's pioneering social issue drama The Blot; the German expressionist masterpiece The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (collectors' edition); the shorts and feature-length classics of deadpan clown Buster Keaton; and three of Garbo's silent films (The Temptress [1926], Flesh and the Devil [1927], and The Mysterious Lady [1928]), all contained in Greta Garbo: The Signature Collection. When that Swedish beauty smoldered, no words were necessary!


  1. These images are impressive--thanks!
    The premise for The Wind sounds fascinating. A natural force, experienced every day, is elevated to the status of a character, a plot driver, and given the erosive power of water.
    I read a criticism that the film's effects lacked subtlety, but that is likely due to the early stage of moviemaking. Perhaps it is now time to remake The Wind, with its original ending.

  2. Replies
    1. Hi there, Baron! Nice to see ya!
      Do you suppose, if we could read Ms. Garbo's mind, in that last photo, her thoughts would be: Ye Gods, if Ramon doesn't stop rubbing my cheek with that caterpillar he calls his mooostahsh, I will keel heem!"?

  3. Gio

    No wonder she wanted to be left alone, just who is that hirsute heel?


    A clean-shaven


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