The Rear-View Mirror: The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

When The Story of the Kelly Gang opened in Melbourne Australia on Boxing Day 1906, it was standing room only. Advertised by its producers as “The longest film ever made”, the reels ran over 1200 metres, about an hour. Today there are those who claim it was the very first narrative feature film ever made. Of course films were made before that time, mainly shorts; the Salvation Army, for example, had released many short biblical films in Australia by 1900. Whether they were Australian, American or European films, however, they rarely exceeded 30 minutes, or about 600 metres of film.

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The Rear-View Mirror: Lois Weber – Suspense (1913)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

Even according to Wikipedia, J.W. Griffith “seems to have been the first to understand how certain film techniques could be used to create an expressive language”. Griffith is credited to have been “the first” to invent such innovations as intercutting, or even, absurdly, the close-up. However, he did not. There were many filmmakers before him to use such innovations, and during the span of his career, there were many others using these techniques to great, or better, effect. It is often difficult, seeing how much early film is lost, to determine who was “the first” to do anything. But it is certain that many early filmmakers used such techniques to “create an expressive language” before Griffith’s career was made by the massive, though controversial, success of his racist, excessive tour de force in 1915.

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The Rear-View Mirror: Spontaneous Combustion, Frances Marion and Mary Pickford (1917)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

Frances Marion and Mary Pickford

When Mary Pickford and Frances Marion met in 1914, Marion may well have believed that fate was playing a hand in her favour. Not long before she had met and befriended Marie Dressler, the famous vaudevillian. Marion was then a cub reporter for William Randolph Hearst’s newspaper. The interview was probably a joke at Marion’s expense: Dressler despised Hearst and everything connected to him. Marion, however, pleaded with Dressler, “I will lose my job!”, she insisted. “Is that what those bastards told you?!” replied Dressler, and granted Marion the interview. Marion would never forget the kindness, the women became lifelong friends, and much later she would return the favour. And now she had an opportunity to meet a rising star, whose quality films already stood out for Marion, Mary Pickford.

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The Rear-View Mirror: The Mark of Zorro (1920)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

In our current times, Douglas Fairbanks is best known for his swashbuckling films. Chances are that one of your first silents was a film he made. But at the time, making The Mark of Zorro was quite the risk, for an actor best known for light comedy work and westerns. Especially since he was also co-founding United Artists, with such luminaries as Chaplin, Pickford and Griffith. If audiences wouldn’t accept Fairbanks’ re-branding, his career might very well fail. The decision for his first more meaty role to be Zorro, then, was an inspired one. He gets to show off his comedic chops, as well as his incredible athleticism.

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The Rear-View Mirror: The Lucky Dog (1921)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

Four and a half minutes into 1921’s “The Lucky Dog” comedy short, cinematic history is made. The film’s hero – a penniless young man with a surprisingly emo take on eye make-up – is chasing the eponymous lucky dog when he embroils himself in a mugging. As this is the knockabout world of early film comedy, the hold-up does not go according to plan, and the intended victim ends up racing off with more money than when he started, the oversized brute (do brutes come in any other size?) in hot pursuit.

What makes this particular moment historic is the identity of both mugger and muggee. The former is played by Oliver “Babe” Hardy, already a veteran with over a hundred comedy shorts under his belt. His intended victim, a relative newbie to Hollywood but already in leading roles, is Stan Laurel.

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The Rear-View Mirror: Safety Last! (1923)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

Everyone knows Charlie Chaplin. To a lesser extent perhaps, Buster Keaton too. But the third giant in this comedy trifecta, Harold Lloyd, is not as well known nowadays, although he made more films than the two of them combined. This may be because of distribution issues (Lloyd, in his later days, would only allow screenings of his films on special occasions). But perhaps even more so because the need-to-succeed everyman of his ’20s films was felt to be old-fashioned.

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The Rear-View Mirror: The Jazz Singer (1927)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

Despite its reputation as the first full length feature with synchronised sound, The Jazz Singer is a silent for most of its running time. When Sam Warner of Warner Brothers bought Vitaphone in 1925, despite the misgivings of his brother Harry, it was not because he thought that “Talkies” were the future: it was because they could record a film’s music, making a full orchestra unnecessary for showings. The process was complicated and ponderous. But the future did belong to the Talkies, and so The Jazz Singer is still famous today for being the first of its kind.

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The Rear-View Mirror: The Divorcee (1930)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

The Divorcee begins with a group of friends which make up the in-crowd of New York society. Jerry (Norma Shearer) and Ted (Chester Morris) are in love. They decide to get married. Paul (Conrad Nagel), who also loves Jerry, is firmly relegated to the friend zone. Gutted, he proceeds to get drunk and gets into a car accident that disfigures one of the other women of the group: Dot (Judith Wood). Ur-‘Nice Guy’ that he is, he marries her out of pity. Wedding bells and domesticity, sacrifice and unrequited love. So far, so Hollywood. Female facepalm. But then halfway Shearer delivers the following searing monologue:

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The Rear-View Mirror: Trouble in Paradise (1932)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

Trouble in Paradise might be, in the words of film historian and podcaster Karina Longworth, the “pre-codiest of pre-code movies”. Before the Hays code came in to effect, filmmakers took full advantage of the lack of regulation surrounding topics of sex and morality in American movies. In the case of Trouble in Paradise, a film by the much beloved Ernst Lubitsch, it results in a surprisingly adult movie about, well, sex. But not in the way we, modern audiences, are used to. No soft-focus from-the-hips-up shots of people doing the actual deed. But the implications? They’re spicier than that.

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The Rear-View Mirror: The Thin Man (1934)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

When MGM got William Powell on loan from Warner to make The Thin Man with Myrna Loy, the studio anticipated they had just green-lit a quick B-movie. Director W.S. Van Dyke was known to be able to keep to his deadlines and they managed, incredibly, to shoot the film in two weeks, with only a few days’ extension. Perhaps it was due to the spontaneity of Loy and Powell, the cinematography by James Wong Howe, perhaps is was partly because it was a passion project for Van Dyke. But far from being a throwaway comedy, it went on to secure four Oscar nominations and spawn five sequels, three of which were directed by Van Dyke himself. (MGM was never a studio to give up a lucrative formula).

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