I feel a little sheepish to say that up till now, this blog has had only one post on a silent movie — Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. That situation is about to be corrected thanks to Don McHoull. A week or so ago, Michael Tisserand alerted me to this kind of amazing video Mr. McHoull had compiled and tweeted out, under the handle @silentmoviegifs:
I immediately asked McHoull what the movies were, and he promptly responded with a list. One was Sherlock Jr.; I’ve spent a good part of the last week enjoyably sorting out the rest and figuring where they fit into Movies in Other Movies. One that I put aside was Keaton’s A Frozen North. It contains the closing image of the montage — Buster being awakened in a movie theater — but it doesn’t have any actual movies in it. In this post and a following one, I’ll consider the rest — plus two others that emerged in my research — in chronological order. I’ll add that they were a revelation and a delight, in showing me a whole meta level of early movies that I didn’t know existed. Finally, all the films can be seen, in one version or other, on YouTube and/or Vimeo.
Those Awful Hats is a gem, and as far as I know the very first movie-in-movie. Here’s the whole two minutes forty-five seconds of it:
The director was D.W. Griffith, just embarking on his second year of movie-making. (He’d put out about fifty shorts in his first, 1908, so he had already acquired a fair amount of experience.) The movie — before a deus ex machina draws things to a speedy conclusion — is a witty commentary on on hats, on the behavior and etiquette of movie houses, and (judging by what’s on the screen) by the mayhem that could pass for cinematic entertainment in 1909.
Mabel’s Dramatic Career (1913), not in the McHoull montage, was put forward by Ben Zimmer (who found it on the Films in Films site) when I raised this topic on Facebook. The short, directed by Mack Sennett, is meta to a high degree. Sennett plays a character named Mack who romantically rejects the family maid, Mabel, played by Mabel Normand. She’s eventually fired and, while job-hunting, somehow finds her way to a Keystone Studios set where a movie is being made. She’s hired to appear in the film, which — kicking the meta up a notch — is At Twelve O’Clock, a real Keystone movie starring the real Normand.
Time passes, during which Mack realizes he loves Mabel. He passes by a movie house, sees an At Twelve O’Clock poster with Mabel’s picture on it, buys a ticket, and goes inside. The clip starts on the movie set, where Mabel has just demonstrated her ability to do a pratfall. (And this makes me realize there could be a blog about movies containing scenes of movies being made. If anyone’s interested, you’re welcome.)
Quite a few things to note here, starting with the blatant product placement of a “Keystone” frame onscreen. (Mack applauds when he sees it.) Then there’s a new comic trope in this subgenre: the idea that, with movies being so new, a spectator might have a hard time telling film from reality.
And there’s the identity of the film within the film — interesting to me because I’d like to be able to name the first instance where movie characters watch a real movie. (All the other examples in this post have fake films-in-films.) Internal clues would suggest that Mack is watching At Twelve O’ Clock (1913), and Films in Films blog asserts this is the case. I don’t think it is (though I can’t be sure because At Twelve O’Clock isn’t extant) for two reasons: what we see of the movie-in-movie doesn’t match published descriptions of At Twelve O’Clock, and what we see is so exaggerated as to suggest a spoof of movies, not a real one.
I posed the question to silent film historian Steve Massa, and he agreed, pointing out that what we see doesn’t match plot description in reviews of At Twelve O’Clock, and that the villain in the movie-in-movie is Fred Mace, while villain in At Twelve O’Clock is Ford Sterling. So my earliest example of a real movie being used, at this point, is still Who Killed Cock Robin? in Hitchcock’s Sabotage (1936).
A Film Johnnie (1914), directed by George Nichols, is an early Charlie Chaplin gem. It also invokes the can’t-tell-movies-from-real-life idea. (“Steals” is such a harsh term, and it’s done better here as well.) In this scene, Charlie’s character has just fallen in love with the actress on the screen (Peggy Pearce) and is driven to action when a brute manhandles her.
I don’t like ending with an anticlimax, but the last to be considered in this post is the weakest of the four, Luke’s Movie Muddle (1916), starring Harold Lloyd and directed by Hal Roach. Lloyd made it early in his career, when he was doing the “Lonesome Luke” character — basically, down to the mustache, a Chaplin knockoff. (A harsh word, but it fits.) Here, Luke is a sort of jackass-of-all-trades at a movie house, where everything that can go wrong does.
Befitting the movie’s lack of distinction is the extremely bland footage that Roach (who would go on to better things) chooses to put on the screen. At one point, it’s just a bunch of people milling around on the street. And then there’s this exciting shot. (At the end of the clip, you can see Lloyd’s Chaplin shtick.)
Next: From shorts to features, and another appearance (sort of) by Harold Lloyd.