Home Video Hovel: We’re in the Movies: Palace of Silents & Itinerant Filmmaking, by Aaron Pinkston
In the early silent era, filmmakers traveled the United States to find stories in small communities. Called “itinerant filmmakers,” they used locals to act and work on the films. Though the results may not be as spectacular as the big Hollywood pictures made by Chaplin, Keaton or Griffith, they became some of the most authentic documents of their time and helped invigorate these small communities. For fans of silent film that are interested in more than the more famous standards, a new collection released by Flicker Alley is noteworthy. We’re in the Movies: Palace of Silents & Itinerant Filmmaking features two previously unreleased documentaries on silent cinema and a number of under-seen itinerant silent films.
When You Wore a Tulip and I Wore a Big Red Rose is an hour long documentary made in 1983 about a small filmmaking community in Wausau, Wisconsin, about 150 miles due north of Madison. In the mid-19-teens, itinerant filmmakers came to Wausau and made films showcasing the people, their jobs and their city, and somehow, the films have survived. Filmmaker Stephen Schaller, who had discovered and restored “The Lumberjack” (1914), talks to a number of people in Wausau about their experiences with making these lovely documents. Schaller’s look at this community paints a broad overview of the silent film experience (from the work of an organist to the technical aspects of film stock) with a number of colorful characters.
The most fun section of the documentary shows a few ladies who appeared and consumed these films watching the films and reminiscing about their lives. They talk about the films as if they are home movies instead of feature films, pointing out the people and places in the frame. In one particular scene from “The Lumberjack,” the view is of a community wedding, specifically the wedding party and guests leaving the church — this gives these old ladies the perfect opportunity to gab about who these people are and who remains. Another shows off the bustling locales of Wausau, Wisconsin, which is spliced with what buildings have replaced those in the film, nearly seventy years later. This becomes a strange audio commentary track, adding a communal history to the cinematic history, something often lost in translation when watching old films today. This becomes a particular concern of the We’re in the Movies collection and is driven home pretty strongly in When You Wore a Tulip and I Wore a Big Red Rose.
The second feature documentary located on We’re in the Movies is Palace of Silents: The Silent Movie Theatre in Los Angeles. The 2010 doc provides a healthy oral history of the creation and reinvention of the 150-seat treasure at 611 North Fairfax. I’ve never had a chance to visit the Silent Movie Theatre (or its current state as Cinefamily), but even as I live half the country away, the love people have for this theater has become apparent. The talking heads featured, which includes critics, historians, filmmakers, and former employees, bring their love for theater and its owners along with their sometimes odd (and sometimes critical) perceptions in its strange history.
Perhaps the biggest strength of Palace of Silents is the openness to talk about the seedier details during the ownership of Lawrence Austin in the 1990s. Austin was known as an affable film lover and longtime friend to original owner John Hampton, but there were peculiar parts of his personality and dark alley dealings that couldn’t be ignored. Palace of Silents creates a fantastic balance of being a declaration of love for this place and these people without being a puff piece. Without knowledge of the theater’s history, the story goes into incredibly dark places that genuinely surprised and shocked me. Nearly half way through the film. it becomes something else entirely — without spoiling real life for you, something like a true crime story.
At less than 80 minutes, Palace of Silents: The Silent Movie Theatre in Los Angeles is jampacked with nuggets, anecdotes and film clips. Because it takes the presentation of an oral history, talking heads are spliced together in a coherent way, clipping along from moment to moment. It perhaps moves too quickly at points, where a certain fact or story seems to deserve a bit more time to develop, but I can’t argue the doc does a great job of telling this story in an entertaining and informative way. Whether or not you are a loyal patron at the Silent Movie Theatre, you can appreciate the important perspective of cinema history and even the more torrid bits.
Along with these two docs, the collection holds a booklet with two essays on itinerant filmmaking and the Silent Movie Theatre, as well as five underseen silent short films. First and foremost is “The Lumberjack” (1914), the film featured in the set’s first documentary, a fairly standard silent romantic melodrama. The other silents include “Our Southern Mountaineers” (1918), “In the Moonshine Country” (1918), and “Mountain Life” (1918). You may have noticed a theme. All together, We’re in the Movies: Palace of Silents & Itinerant Filmmaking is a disparate collection of thoughts all leading to one place: that the cinema, both in its production and in its consumption, is about community.