Jul 14, 2014
Catch a glimpse of the silent movie era and how it was an integral part of your ancestors’ lives. In this episode, I find out more about the silent movies my grandmother catalogued in her diary, and how they molded a generation.
The cultural influences of the “Picture Shows”
Below is a page from my grandmother’s journal documenting the silent films she saw that year, including the actors who starred in them.
Just like today, the stars who light up the silver screen were mimicked and followed for fashion trends, hair styles, decorating ideas, and moral behavior. Understanding who the role models were at the time gives us a better understanding of the cultural influences of the era. Films are NOT primary resources, but they certainly paint a picture of life at any given time in history.
To learn more about silent films, I started with a simple Google search, altering my search criteria until I found movie theaters that showed silent films in my area.
The first theater I found was the Stanford Theatre, located in Palo Alto, California. It was first opened in 1925 and stood as Palo Alto’s premier theater house for several decades. In 1987, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation bought the theater and restored it. It is now owned and operated by the non-profit Stanford Theatre Foundation.
www.stanfordtheatre.org - The website provides all the movie schedules from 1929-1961, compiled from ads that appeared in the Palo Alto Times. Vaudeville acts were also regularly included in the lineup. And the Wurlitzer organ live accompaniment was a staple.
Grandma’s Diary Entry – Sunday, April 22, 1928
I have to lead singing at church. Walter and I went to the lake. Met Helen Weathers and Jesse Jay and Ed Taylor. Helen and I went in swimming. Went to the show afterwards. The vaudeville was keen. Lew Cody in “Adam and Eve.”
The first silent movie I saw was “Diary of a Lost Girl”, a German movie starting Louise Brooks. It was a late entry silent film released on April 24, 1930. It tells the story of an innocent young girl, who is raped by the clerk of her father’s pharmacy. After she becomes pregnant, she is rejected by her family and must fend for herself in a cruel world. It was not the wholesome far I expected but was riveting nonetheless. (I must acknowledge the organ accompaniment of Dennis James because he added a drama and magic to the film that was priceless.)
The next film I saw was the classic 1923 comedy “Safety Last” starring Harold Lloyd. This is a must-see, full of laugh-out-loud humor. I was starting to get a feel for what drew Grandma to the pictures as a young girl. It was magical, glamorous, and hugely expanded her social network.
Society’s views on the silent film era
To learn more, I was combed through newspapers from her home town in the 1920s at the State Archives. I came across two newspaper articles: “Getting Back to the Home” from January of 1925, and “Harking Back to those Old Home Days” from February 5, 1925.
The first article leads in…
“Much has been said as to the methods of checking the crime and rebelliousness among the young people of today. The automobile, trains and other means of travel as well as moving pictures, dance halls, etc. that attract young people, and so lead them to seek amusement away from home have contributed to the fact that the home is not the center of attraction for the majority of families as it once was.” The article went on to say that there were plans in the works for a community get-together.
The February 5th article reported the events of that evening, which was called “Back to the Home.” The local residents ate pumpkin pie, sang songs, listened to speeches and music, and comic readings. (And I happened to recognize the name of the cellist in the orchestra as being the man who signed as witness on my great-grandfather’s naturalization papers!) The even was a huge success and was deemed “something that will in surely bear repeating.”
Immediately my grandmother’s diary entries bemoaning her mother who was “from the old country” started to become clearer. Grandma felt that Great-Grandma just didn’t understand her. Having experienced the thrill of the old movie theater experience myself, and reading in the newspapers how it was affecting society, I began to better understand that she lamenting more than just the woes of being 15 years old. Society was changing. And as a mother, I began to sympathize with my great-grandmother’s plight of trying to raise three teenagers in the new world.
Enjoying Silent Movies at Home
I live 25 minutes from a little town that has a Silent Film Museum devoted to a company that produced hundreds of them locally back in the teens. Every Saturday night, they show two shorts, and one full length movie each week with live piano accompaniment.
Last week my husband and I went to the regular Saturday night show, and we found ourselves watching the original full-length versions of two movies about San Francisco in 1906. In the last podcast, I covered the San Francisco Earthquake and other historical events, and included a Youtube.com playlist that I created full of old and new videos about the earthquake.
The first movie short was called “A Trip Down Market Street.” This is in my Youtube.com playlist under the title “San Francisco 1905 - 1906 (short form).” The Archivist at the museum said that research has uncovered that this film was shot just about four days before the earthquake hit in April 1906. The filmmaker shot the entire movie from the back of a cable car slowly moving down Market Street toward the Ferry Building. He told us that the reason the movie survived is that the filmmaker shipped the film to their New York offices for processing just one day before the quake.
The second movie short was produced by Blackhawk Films immediately following the earthquake, (www.filmclassic.com/Blackhawk.htm) and was aptly titled “Destruction of San Francisco.” Portions of this film can also be found on the YouTube playlist.
If you don’t live within driving distance to a theater showing silent films, here are some options for viewing at home:
Netflix (UPDATED) – They have an incredible catalogue of films that can be hard to find. You can stream movies from any device at home at www.Netflix.com. Type “silent” in the search box and click the GENRE matches tab. You can also search by your favorite silent movie star (Mary Pickford, Clara Bow, Harold Lloyd, Douglas Fairbanks, Jackie Coogan, etc). Not all films are available to stream, but many can be delivered in DVD form with a subscription to www.dvd.netflix.com.
Turner Classic Movies (TCM) – www.tcm.com/index.jsp - Go to the website and type SILENT in the search box, then click GO. Scroll down to the KEYWORD MATCHES to see what’s available. They often run “Silent Sundays.” I find the best way to approach TCM it to review the schedule for the week on my cable TV menu, and set movies of interest to be recorded.
The Public Library – A quick search of my local library catalogue online showed dozens of silent movies. I found that searching a particular silent era actor as an “author” worked better than searching ‘silent movies’ alone. Beware, movies held over the one week time limit incur hefty fees. But the titles were free, and in the case of my local library, I can place a request for a movie from another library in the same county system, and they will deliver it to my local branch and hold it for me for pick up free of charge. For a global search of libraries try www.worldcat.org
Ebay.com – If you’re looking for a title that is particularly hard to find, EBay may be the best source. www.ebay.com
Grandma’s Diary Entry – Friday, November 2nd, 1930
“Alfred, Len, Mama and I went to the show in Merced. “Four Son’s.” It was sure good!”
I looked the movie up at IMDb.com, the biggest movie database on the internet. The description stated that the movie revolved around a mother and her four grown sons living happily in a German village prior to WWI. The oldest son, Joseph, yearns to go to America, and his mother gives him her savings to realize his dream. After the war begins, two of the sons go off to battle and are killed. Meanwhile, Joseph becomes an American citizen and joins the army to fight against Germany. The youngest son then leaves to join his battalion, and is killed in battle. After the war, Joseph goes home to New York and sends for his mother. She makes the journey through Ellis Island and they finally reunite.
My grandma’s parents had emigrated from Germany in 1910, just prior to the start of the war. Great-grandfather came over first to find work. When great grandmother discovered she was pregnant with Alfred, she followed three months letter, which was sooner than planned. She secretly made the trip with her 3-year-old daughter. I had to get a copy of this film!
I couldn’t find “Four Sons” at any of the usual places, so I went to Ebay.com. There I found someone who had a copy, and I bought it. The movie was extremely moving, and I cheered for the naive yet faithful mother as she made her way alone through the confusing world of Ellis Island and the streets of New York. This movie must have been very touching for Great grandmother to watch, and I would guess that it generated conversation about her own trip. Many years later, Grandma fulfilled a life long dream and made the trip to Ellis Island to see it for herself. Before her death, she told an eager granddaughter all about Mama, the journey through Ellis Island, and about her love for the moving pictures.
GEM: Interview with Sam Gill – April 19th,
Do you by chance research your own family history?
Not much now. As a child I helped my mother quite a bit with her genealogical research, joining her on trips to libraries, helping at home, typing up manuscripts, filling in sheets, etc. My mother published a little pamphlet on the John Ashton family of London, Ontario, Canada for which I’ll provide a link to a recent description.
In my youth, I also recorded via reel-to-reel tape, important family members (father’s mother in depth; mother’s step-mother briefly; mother and father, and siblings casually) in the 1960s and 1970s. They—the older family members-- are all deceased now, and I am very glad I did this. I am currently transferring these tapes to CD.
My brothers George and Paul are very interested in family history, too—now, actually more so than I am, which is very surprising considering my brother Paul showed very little interest in family during his youth. I was extremely interested in family history in my youth, but not as much now, unless it be to discover whatever I can about the personal relationships family members had to one another, as well as to their friends and other loved ones.
How accurately do you think they portray life at that time?
One needs to be very careful with film, today as well as yesterday. Most film—even documentaries—often depict people as they want to be seen, or to perform in stories the way they themselves want to appear, or the way the filmmakers specifically want their characters to appear.
I have a friend who once coordinated the locating of antiques in the Los Angeles area for Christie’s in London, who commented that frequently the furniture he saw in teens silent films of the fairly common society-drama type, were extremely high-end antiques that would command extremely high figures in current auctions, and are the kind of antiques never seen in today’s films, or at least very rarely.
I mention this because it’s a good example of the fact that each person may see something of interest that another person would not even notice or care about. Also, films from the silent era can be important historically and culturally in showing us the way life was; but as with any photograph, it may take a lot of interpretation and understanding to know exactly what it is that we are looking at.
What influence do you believe the young medium of movies had on the culture of that time?
Huge influence. I believe films from the very beginning had an enormous impact on our culture, and the culture of every country when and where films began to be shown. And as sound was added, even with radio, and later with the immediacy of television, the impact has become even more profound. Many immigrants have commented, too, then as now, on the importance of going to the movies to learn the language and culture of their new country.
I believe youth especially has been affected, but probably all ages. I mention youth because young people are so impressionable, and so things such as fashion, dating techniques, job aspirations, desires of where one might live and play, attitudes toward family and community, nearly every aspect of life has been represented and thus made available to audiences for their “selecting,” taking what each person wants or “needs” and leaving the rest. With what they take, they can mold their lives, or re-define what it is they believe they know and want.
How would you advise a family historian to approach the silent movies as a resource?
See as many films as he or she can, starting with whatever seems of most interest—documentaries; travel films; comedies; dramas; westerns; whatever. For more of the genuine “feel” of the movie-going experience, I believe what we are doing here at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum on Saturday nights, is very important. These silent films were shown with music accompaniment, which aids greatly the impact and accessibility of these films.
With what movie or actor / actress would you recommend they start to become introduced to silent films?
That’s an interesting question, and one that gets at the root of what I mean when I say these films can have a profound impact on a person—especially youth. Just as someone today may be enormously impressed with Johnny Depp or Christina Ricci, or a film about the mafia life, or corporate life in New York City, or even a horror or fantasy film, the same holds true for silent films seen today.
Each of our audience members seems to relate in a highly individualistic way to a film, often to a particular “star”—perhaps being impressed with the steely reserve of William S. Hart; laughing at the often-surreal physical stunts of Buster Keaton who becomes a kind of Every Man against the harsh realities of our physical world; the adventurous-spirit of Douglas Fairbanks; the spunkiness of Mary Pickford who never let anything get her down; and so on.
The film A TRIP DOWN MARKET STREET (1906) has become a great favorite here, where a camera was placed on the front of a street-car heading down from about 8th Street to the Ferry Building in April 1906 just a few days before the earthquake and fire. Horse-drawn wagons, cars and vehicles, automobiles, people on foot, bicycles, you name it, all these methods of transportation are fascinating; but most fascinating, we are watching the people themselves, some oblivious to the filming, others intensely interested, staring right at the camera!
Any other thoughts on the subject as it pertains to folks interested in learning more about the era of 1900-1930?
There are more and more films available on DVD but I still love books, and what one can discover going to the library and pulling film books off the shelves to read at one’s leisure—historical works, cultural studies, picture books (even coffee table books), encyclopedias, biographies and autobiographies, corporate histories of film companies, on and on.
It’s all fascinating, and it’s all out there…to be discovered. Many years ago, someone told me he thought I “lived in the past,” and implied that that was a pretty terrible thing to do. I answered, “I don’t think of it as LIVING in the past, but of EXPLORING the past, like an archaeologist.” I think the truth of that may be the same for genealogists, to explore the past through the discovery of family history, which is after all, human history.