Tonight’s silent feature at the Paramount was the hilarious Girl Shy, starring bespectacled schmoe Harold Lloyd.
Harold plays a naive small-town tailor who writes a book about the ladies and how to woo them; naturally, his ideas are, hurm, fanciful.
Well, boy meets girl, boy loses girl, and there’s an epic car (well, um, car, trolley, horse, foot, and motorcycle) chase. In supporting roles are downtown Los Angeles, 1924; Crackerjack packaging, same time frame; and an Acme Dog Biscuits box, circa 1924.
One of the things I really enjoy about silents on a big screen is the peripheral information. The way the sets are decorated. The activities engaged in by the people in the background of outdoor shots. Takes shot from different angles at the same interestion edited together to move the narrative of the story through a mixed-up, jumbled cityscape you only notice if you’re looking at the edges of the frame.
In silents from up until the period of this release, as well, the great smoothing-over has yet to take place. Highly attractive persons of both sexes filling starring roles have wildy untamed teeth, enormous noses, weak chins, peculiar body shapes, and ill-fitting clothes. Granted, in comedies there is more leeway for this sort of thing. But even serious, big-money pics from before ’24 or so have this quality, which I treasure.
These entertainments aren’t only the foundations of modern cinema; they aren’t only artifacts of anthropological interest; they aren’t only nostalgic experiences which create shared experiences across time and genreations. They are, of course, all of these; but for me it’s not necessarily these attractions that really make me love the silents.
It’s the bad teeth, the paunchy, weak-chinned star, and the mooks in the back of the shot smoking and talking about how they’d like to, uh, spend time with the leading lady. These films, by virtue of the less powerful (than today) position of the craft in American society at the time they were made, offer us a vision of what movies can look like when not made under conditions of dictatorial, imperial control of the frame.
Interestingly enough, there’s something about these films that reminds me of Hong Kong action flicks and Bollywood musicals. Uh, sorry, Western Europe: even though I know you love the films as much as I do, I’m not familiar with post-silents from your shores that summon up the same bumptious energy. Does Terry Gilliam count?