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November 16, 2010


Silent movies, Woody Allen


Crimes and Misdemeanors

Turner Classic Movies is doing a fantastic 7-part series on the early days of Hollywood and the American movie business called "Moguls and Movie Stars". It's on every Monday at 8:00, and Part 3 was on last night; it was all about the 1920's, and included the rise of huge movie stars like Clara Bow, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and Greta Garbo, and the incredibly huge wealth created by the studio heads.

In this week's installation, we see east coast investors and government agencies slowly becoming aware of that crazy bunch of hedonist reprobates out in LA, drinking illegal booze, having orgies, and making money hand over fist. Hollywood attracted the attention of investors like Joseph Kennedy, who poured money into the movie industry and created RKO, and also had an affair with Gloria Swanson (the Kennedy men loved their movie stars.) Before the federal government could regulate the increasingly salacious output, the industry stepped in and created the self-censoring Hays Office, so that was the end of on-screen nudity and unpunished adultery for the next few decades.

We also learned about the created of the Academy and the first Oscar awards. The first Best Picture awards were given to two movies, Wings and Sunrise, both silent films. TCM aired Sunrise right after the series--a really incredibly good movie. It's the first Hollywood movie by F.W. Murnau, maybe better known for doing Nosferatu with alleged pretend vampire Max Schreck.

The storyline of 1927's Sunrise has been used over and over again in more recent movies -- I can think of at least 6 Woody Allen movies that use its ideas. Crimes and Misdemeanors (above), Husbands and Wives, Hannah and Her Sisters and a bunch of others all involve a bored married man who goes crazy for a sexy single woman, then things go wrong and he eventually comes to his senses and goes back to his wife. He might even try to kill someone along the way. If Sunrise were remade today, the husband would maybe be Adam Sandler or Paul Schneider (big-budget/low-budget), the wife would be Emily Mortimer or Drew Barrymore (the actress in the original looks just like her), the hot young temptress would be Kirsten Dunst or Mila Kunis.

I never realized it before, but this story we've seen a hundred times is taken straight from our silent classics. Just like in Sunrise, Woody allows his guys to run around with their young girlfriends, then come back home to their comely wives with basically no consequences--with the notable exception of Anthony Hopkins in his latest movie, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, maybe the only time it doesn't work out for him.

The Hays Code put a temporary end to scenes in Sunrise like the young single girl lounging in her filmy underwear and rolling around in a swamp with the married dude -- it's always a little bit of a surprise to see the stuff audiences were watching in pre-Code 1920's movie theaters. There's a reason we went from zero theaters to 21,000 theaters by 1916. To put that in context, there are 5,800 theaters and 39,000 screens today, and 3 times more people in the country.

categories: Business, Celebrities, Culture, Movies, Sex
posted by amy at 10:28 AM | #

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That series sounds awesome; I'll definitely buy it when it comes out on DVD. The book "Movie-Made America" has a good overview of the beginning of the film industry, although the author seems a bit too keen on reminding the reader which of the major players were Jewish. "Film History: An Introduction" from Kristen Thompson and David Bordwell is even better: A 700-page global history of the cinema, including European, Asian and Latin American developments. Be warned, however, it will drive you crazy by describing amazing movies you will never, ever have the opportunity to see:(

Anyway, it's a pricey textbook, but I bet you can get a used copy (or even a previous edition) for a song.

Posted by: Tim at November 16, 2010 4:48 PM

Oh, and another GREAT documentary series is "Cinema Europe," a six-part series that traces the development of film in, you guessed it, Europe. Lots of great clips, and fantastic interviews with the filmmakers and actors. It's not available anymore (unless you want to drop a lot on a used copy) but maybe you can rent it, or check it out of the library. I have the Japanese version, and I still re-watch episodes from time to time (especially the ones on France, Germany and Sweden).


Posted by: Tim at November 16, 2010 5:51 PM

Here's the Movie-Made America book:


Looks really good. The TCM series also identifies the Jews among the early industry players, but that seems to be because all of them were Jewish. Even the theater owners. And Cecil B. DeMille! Movies were a new industry, I guess, and it was entrepreneurial immigrants in New York who got in on it from the beginning. I love that Samuel Goldwyn's real name was Samuel Goldfish.


Lots of cheap copies of Film History: An Introduction available on Amazon.


Posted by: amy at November 16, 2010 9:35 PM

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