Saturday, January 11, 2014

Classic Movie History Project: 1917 in Film: Vamps, Tramps and Box Office Champs

This post is my contribution to the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon, jointly hosted by Movies Silently (1915 - 1926), Silver Screenings (1927-1930) and Once Upon a Screen (1939-1950). Please visit each site for a roster of fascinating posts about your favorite movie year.


97 years ago America entered the war raging in Europe, Mata Hari was arrested, the Russian Revolution took place, US suffragettes battled on for the right to vote  and Woodrow Wilson began serving his second term as US President. The entire world was in turmoil and the silent cinema offered an oasis of mirth, sentiment, comfort, and hot, steamy sex to American audiences.
Mary as Gwendolyn, the Poor Little Rich Girl
Box office queen and America’s Sweetheart, Mary Pickford, starred in 2 of the year’s highest grossing films. Little Mary’s popularity in 1917 was unsurpassed. She was the perfect “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm,” (#2 at the box office for the year) and gave one of her very best performances as the “Poor Little Rich Girl,” which came in at #3 for the year.

Gwendolyn, the neglected little rich girl, gave Mary Pickford one of her most perfect roles. Anyone who thinks that she was a one-trick pony who imitated little girls needs to see Mary here at her best. It is impossible to deny her charm, her naturalness and her awesome star power. She was the greatest star and was loved, not only by American audiences, but by moviegoers all over the world. Such was the power of silent film.
Little Mary takes on the nasty Germans - and wins!
An interesting Pickford film from 1917 was "The Little American," directed by Cecil B. DeMille. Shown to American audiences just as the USA was entering World War I, the film was a tale of our American miss who is loved by both a German and French soldier, survives a torpedoed boat, is nearly raped by the loutish Germans and eventually saves the day. How could it miss? Outright propaganda, for sure, but America was entering the fray amid much protest and films like this greased the wheels.   
With Mary on our side, how could we lose?
While Mary Pickford was outwardly of the Victorian Age, she also embodied the spunk and independence that reflected the inevitable evolution and change in the American woman. Her little girl would definitely be wearing bloomers and picketing with the suffragettes.
The Vamp of the Nile - Hubba Hubba

The highest grossing film of 1917 was one that showcased a woman who emancipated herself. “Cleopatra” was the #1 box office champ of 1917 and starred the original vamp herself, Theda Bara, as that wanton woman of the pyramid set.
This Nile River humidity just kills my hair!
“Cleopatra” was a mega production. No expense was spared on the lavish sets and costumes (revealing and outrageous and, sadly, uncredited). The casting of Theda as Cleo was brilliant, as Theda’s carefully crafted image as home wrecker and insatiable love machine was a perfect fit for the temptress of the Nile.

Tragically, this and another tiny piece of footage is all that is known to survive of “Cleopatra.” The loss of such an important film highlights how much of the silent cinema has been lost. It is estimated that 75 % of all silent films have been lost to us forever (unless one happily turns up in some attic in the Balkans or somewhere as they have known to do from time to time). 
What I wouldn't give to see Theda in her many costumes!
One artist whose work thankfully survives is Charlie Chaplin.
Charlie ♥s Edna in "The Immigrant"
By 1917 Charlie Chaplin was already loved by the entire world. Both he and Mary Pickford enjoyed a global popularity during that time that remains unmatched. After serving his film apprenticeship with Mack Sennett, Chaplin moved on to Essanay in 1915 and then to Mutual in 1916, where he produced 12 of the most perfect comedies ever made for film. After treating the audience to "The Floorwalker", "The Fireman", "The Vagabond", "One A.M.", "The Count", "The Pawnshop", "Behind the Screen" and "The Rink" in 1916, he gave them "Easy Street", "The Cure", "The Immigrant" and "The Adventurer" in 1917. All co-starred his loveliest leading lady, Edna Purviance, as well as his perfect heavy, Eric Campbell, and Chaplin's loyal go-to character, Henry Bergman. Each and every one offered approximately 20 minutes of comic genius. Chaplin was on a creative and personal high (he and Edna were a romantic item at the time) and he called those years his happiest professionally.

Easy Street
Cop Charlie and Bully Supreme Eric Campbell
Chaplin's tramp takes the offer of a job as a police officer in the very dicey neighborhood of Easy Street after a quick conversion from thief to goodness by a lovely missionary (Edna, of course). Cops drop like flies there because the local toughs, lead by that burly bully, Eric Campbell, terrorize the population, but Charlie saves the day (and saves Edna from molestation with the help of a shot of cocaine in the butt). Love triumphs and, instead of his usual chaos, Charlie restores order for the good people of Easy Street.

The Cure
Chaplin's drunk takes the cure

In "The Cure," Chaplin abandons his Tramp persona in favor of the drunken swell, a part he had honed to perfection during his days on the stage. He arrives at a health spa (run by a physical wreck), in an effort to take "the cure." Instead, hilarity ensues as he drunkenly creates havoc in the gym, on the massage table and with a grouchy victim of gout (all while courting the the charming Edna). At last, he vows to sober up for her, but his stash of booze has found its way to the water fountain and the ladies love the new source of hydration!

The Immigrant
Charlie and Albert Austin share some beans
My favorite and justly famous. Charlie and Edna are steerage passengers on the way to a better life in America. Their passage is rough and they lose one another once they disembark and go their separate ways. A chance meeting in a cafe reunites them and an artist, who offers to paint Edna, changes their financial outlook. 20 minutes of film greatness includes the ironic corralling of the immigrants in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, a gem of a scene in the cafe involving beans and a surly waiter (played by the great Eric Campbell) and the lovely last scene of a rain-soaked Charlie and Edna on their way to obtain a marriage certificate.

The Adventurer
The PJs provided by Charlie's host have an uncomfortably
 familiar look to the escaped convict!
Chaplin's last Mutual is a delight. He is an escaped convict who happens into a rich man's party. Naturally, he woos the pretty hostess and annoys the host and generally causes total chaos. Chaplin has perfected the 2-reel comedy and the gags, the tone and the timing appear effortless.

While Hollywood was in its infancy and may more glory years were to come, the stars established during those early years had an unbelievable staying power. 97 years later the names of Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Theda Bara (incredibly, since so few of her films survive) are still known and their fame and art still has the power to awe anyone interested, not just in the history of film, but in the simple pleasure of entering the world of make-believe.

Stars for the ages
What stars of today will be rememberd 97 years from now?


Inge Gregusch said...

Wonderful post: well researched and fabulously illustrated. It truly is a shame that these films are mostly lost. A very good year and three immortal stars!

Silver Screenings said...

Now you've done it. I have the overwhelming urge to drop everything in my life and see every one of these movies – at least the ones that are available to us.

You've done a wonderful job. I feel like I'm so much more knowledgeable about this year/era. Just watch me in action at the next cocktail party!

Fritzi Kramer said...

Marvelous year breakdown! I particularly liked your Chaplin selection. He never found another Edna Purviance, that's certain.

Caftan Woman said...

You made me fall in love with Charlie all over again.

Joe Thompson said...

You picked just the right people and highlights for the year. Thank you.

DorianTB said...

I'm loving your Classic Movie History Project series! Your absorbing look at Mary Pickford, Theda Bara, Edna Purviance, and so much more! I wish we could create a time machine to see the films to let us see the 1917 films that were lost to us, but you're sure doing a great job of spreading the good word. Excellent post!

Anonymous said...

Great post and now I too am sad that no reels of Cleopatra, the silent version, exist.

FlickChick said...

Thank you, Inge - Can you imagine those Cleopatra costumes? What a loss.

FlickChick said...

Thank you, Ruth, for co-hosting this awesome event. I really enjoyed working on this one.

FlickChick said...

Fritzi - thank you so much for co-hosting! Yes - he and Edna were just wonderful together. He should have stuck with her - think of all the trouble he could have avoided!

FlickChick said...

CW - oh, there can never be too much love for Charlie!!

FlickChick said...

Joe - thank you. I see you picked 1916 - so our posts sort of blend together. Those were very good years for film!

FlickChick said...

Thank you, Dorian - 1917 was a great year - I was excited to participate.

FlickChick said...

Thank you, Jenni - how amazing that Cleopatra must have been! Maybe one day a copy will be discovered.

ClassicBecky said...

You brought 1917 to life, Chick ... imagining the world's turmoil and knowing what was going on in Hollywood gives such a picture of a time long gone. I too am so sad that Theda Bara's pictures, especially Cleo, are not around. I read somewhere that 50% of ALL movies made before 1950 are lost. I don't know if that is correct, but I wouldn't be surprised, given the cavalier attitude toward movie preservation until our generation came along. Mary was wonderful, and of course there's Charlie -- comedy film genius pesonified. I loved your article ... excellent!

Anonymous said...

Always so sad that I can only imagine those Cleopatra costumes based on that clip (that I've watched 100s of times!) Given the film history of Cleopatra, I'm betting they more than live up to my expectation.
Such a great post, thank you for sharing!

Anonymous said...

Always so sad that I can only imagine those Cleopatra costumes based on that clip (that I've watched 100s of times!) Given the film history of Cleopatra, I'm betting they more than live up to my expectation.
Such a great post, thank you for sharing!

Page said...

Wait a second! I didn't know these Blogathon posts were on the year you were born. ha ha Just Kiddin!

I love the silents over any other period in film history so this one made me smile from ear to ear. Anything with Charlie and then you gave me that sweet little animated gif too.

I could look at Theda's gowns and crowns all day. I can't even imagine the time put into making her costumes. So much detail and beading. That dress with the train is something else. She looked like a bloated peacock. ha ha

A wonderful post. Such a great idea for a Blogathon. I wish I could have participated.
All the best!


I first heard about The Little American some weeks ago on Tumblr and happily found out it's on YouTube. My great-grandparents' firts date was watchig a Mary Pickford movie, but unfortunately I don't know which.
Aw! Theda's outfits must hurt!
It's very nice that you did a small review of each Chaplin short. I'm planning on doing an exclusive Chaplin festival someday.
Thanks for the kind comment!

Rich said...

Someone seriously needs to make a movie about Mary Pickford. A woman as important as her should not be left to history. With the right screenplay and the right actress, it could be an Oscar-worthy film.

FlickChick said...

Hi Becky - thanks so much for the kind words. It is really sad to think of how much has been lost. Sometimes I read about a film that I would love to see, only to discover that it is lost. Bummer!

FlickChick said...

girlsoffilm - I would just love to see those Cleo costumes!

FlickChick said...

Gee, Page - and you were there for my birth!

FlickChick said...

Rich - good news - there is a film being made about Mary Pickford and it is starring Lily Rabe Let's keep our fingers crossed!

FlickChick said...

Le - poor Theda - I wonder if she had to get drunk to wear some of those!