Interview: Silent Film Historian Steve Joyce

If you’ve been around the Internet long enough, you quickly learn that every genre and era of the cinema has its fans, and if you’re curious enough to read up on them, you learn to appreciate just why they have gained their adherents. For those curious about fantastic cinema of the silent era, an indispensable new book, American Silent Horror, Science Fiction and Fantasy Feature Films, 1913-1929, provides what is not just to date the most comprehensive collection of original reviews of American films of this particular genre and time period, but a fascinating journey into the film-making and -watching culture of a century ago. Four authors, John T. Soister, Henry Nicolella, Steve Joyce and Harry H. Long, along with researcher and archivist Bill Chase, undertook this massive project, and they were recently rewarded for their efforts with an Honorable Mention from the Rondo Awards, chosen by the on-line community of classic horror fans worldwide. We spoke with co-author Steve Joyce about the book and science fiction films of the silent era in general.

1. Thanks granting us this interview, Steve! In the preface to the book, you and your fellow authors discuss your own personal relationships with fantastic films of the silent era, and how you grew interested in them. While science fiction and horror films of every decade of the sound era enjoy fan followings of their own, they all consist largely of people who grew up with them either during the time they were first released to theaters, or distributed to television. How did your own fascination with the genre films of the silent era develop, and do you find that most other fans come upon their interest in a similar way?

Thank you, Andrew. I’m flattered and honored that you approached me to do this. It was a pleasure working with John, Henry, Harry and Bill who all brought their own unique perspectives and backgrounds to the table.

I watched my fair share of 50s sci fi growing up but not a whole lot more than the average kid. So, no, I’d have to say that my interests didn’t quite develop like many of my fellow Baby Boomers. While most of today’s long-time diehards seem to have had their awareness in vintage genre movies aroused by Forest J. Ackerman and the pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland, I was blithely passing Famous Monsters by on my merry way over to the comic book rack.

My fondness for comics gradually gave way to the adventures of Tom Swift, Jr., then “juvenile” s. f. novels and finally to the more “serious” stuff by Heinlein, Wells, Ellison, Dick, Silverberg, Bester, Brunner and others. As I think about it, I suppose exploring “what came before” always tickled my fancy. When I found out about Tom Swift, Senior and all of those Golden Age superheroes, well, both events were just about the coolest thing back then. Really only once vhs – and its associated instant availability – came into vogue did I finally shift genre gears media-wise. That was kicked off by a viewing of Metropolis back in the 80s.

By the way, I find one thing kind of amazing. Even though about 80% of all silents are lost – the viewer of today probably can see as much or more in practical terms than the actual theatergoers of last century’s first few decades ever managed. Showings came into town and left. That was it; there was almost always no second chance. Somehow, over the last 25 odd years, I’ve managed to amass at least some digital footage from close to 150 silent films that could be arguably classified science fiction and all viewable on a whim. You might say that we’re living in the second golden age of silent film.

2. When I interviewed our mutual friend David Sindelar, we discussed how the advent of both the Internet and DVD had changed both viewing habits and access to movies. Today, movies that were once just footnotes in the Don Willis, Walt Lee or Phil Hardy books can be easily accessed on YouTube, and companies such as Kino have put out DVDs of silent classics, as fully restored as they will ever be, at their normal speed and in close to pristine condition. How else have advances in technology improved the silent film viewing experience?

Indeed! Dave and I often swapped tapes way back when. We both still might have video boxes that by rights should’ve long ago qualified for frequent flyer miles! These days we’d more than likely exchange via Rapidshare. So, cyber-networking with like-minded aficionados is a great way to track down the more obscure titles. Plus, via software downloaded to their home p.c., more and more enterprising enthusiasts are willing and able to add title card translations and/or music to their movie computer files. Both are, needless to say, important aspects when it comes to silents.

To take the conversation slightly off point, the internet also provides some incredible tools to recreate a lost film’s “experience”… if not literally, in the mind’s eye. AbeBooks, Alibris and other online used book suppliers yield some nice (and often pleasantly inexpensive) source novels, plays and the like. Every day, new vintage newspapers and film trade journals go online and with them an abundance of plot summaries, reviews, cast listings, etc. Rare stills and lobby cards can be had with a few Ebay clicks (and only with sufficient bankroll, unfortunately). A visit to the Library of Congress website begins the fairly easy process of obtaining copyright records. The list goes on and on.

3. Although you and your co-authors focus specifically on American fantastic film of the silent era, much of the great and innovative work was done in Europe. How did American films differ from their European cousins and conversely, how did they influence each other?

Let’s start off with one caveat. Russian films essentially need to be put off to the side insofar as one major distinction; they generally came with heavy-handed Soviet messages placed into just about everything.

Beyond that, both American and European features were culturally significant in their own way. We can only talk in generalizations, but with that stipulated, American genre films struck the more mainstream pop culture chord in their methods be it in plot, dialogue or whatever. They even dabbled in the schlock of 3D and offered name-that-film contests. On the other hand, the Europeans leaned toward achieving, for lack of better phraseology, a higher art form or “culture” with a capital “C”, if you will. To defend the American approach a bit, it might be considered more genuinely representative of everyday life and the typical person walking down the street.

Pictures from the States tended to aim for the spectacular while the Europeans usually looked wherever they could for subtlety and finesse. Even Metropolis – visual spectacle that it was – gave us the delicate scenes where Maria roams the catacombs’ shadows and the well-framed and executed Moloch Machine sequence. In the book’s entry on Cecile B. DeMille’s The Road to Yesterday – a time travel fantasy akin to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court – we briefly touched on one particularly key scene and compared it to a similar one in Germany’s Hands of Orlac. DeMille’s goal was to induce awe by replicating a believably looking train wreck. In contrast, Robert Weine leveraged the skill of his crew to present Orlac’s accident as an eerily lit montage via the locomotive’s front headlight.

Film was a more international animal back then by its very nature. It was a simple matter to translate a few title cards, splice them in anew and send prints all over the world. I get a big perverse kick out of one anecdote concerning The Battle Cry of Peace which we also cover. It’s a pre-WWI alternate history picture preaching preparedness against a Ruritanian (read German) invasion. Long story short, the Germans got hold of a print and changed it into their own propaganda piece!

Naturally, a migration of talent took place between both continents and, thus, there was cross-pollination; but, the mute nature of cinema years ago made it especially easy for actors to move back and forth. Two genre luminaries that come immediately to mind are Conrad Veidt and Paul Wegener; and, if I can take a moment here, I’d like to announce an upcoming book covering Wegener’s fantastika by my friends and colleagues, John Soister and Henry Nicolella. They’ve let me preview the manuscript and it’s awesome.

4. Science fiction film, as a genre, existed well before it was named or defined as such. In fact, the coining of the term by Hugo Gernsback coincides with the beginning of the sound era in film. How did the early precursors of science fiction literature influence the development of its cinematic counterpart and conversely, did the cinema have any affect on development of the written genre?

Believe it or not, by sheer coincidence, I recently stumbled across a passage by one William Wilson defining “Science-Fiction” back in 1851! There’s always something that “came before”! But yes, Gernsback popularized the term and this is an excellent question.

Basically, there’s always been a strong interaction between science fiction literature and film. Let’s start right from the get go with George Melies’ 1902 A Trip to the Moon. Clearly, Melies lifted the space gun from Verne and the Selenites from Wells. He even went farther than that. In select exhibitions of his short film, a narrative crafted by Melies would be read out loud. In that narrative, Melies gave his astronauts such names as “Alcofrisbas” (in tribute to Alcofrisbas Nasier a.k.a. Francois Rabelais, a 16th century fantasy writer), “Micromegas” (after a space-travelling character of Voltaire’s), “Omega” (likely in homage to any number of 19th century last man on earth novels), etc. The Father of Science Fiction Film definitely was well versed in the genesis of his genre…even if he didn’t exactly know it by name!

Of course, A Trip to the Moon was fraught with light-hearted trick effects and most of the sci fi shorts of the remainder of the decade played merely for amusement and comedy as well. Films like L’Homme Invisible (1909) and Melies’ own 200,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1907) scarcely followed the plots of their sources. Maybe the first s.f. films to seriously zero in on their written brethren were the trio of films by the Brit, Walter Booth: Aerial Torpedo (1908), Aerial Submarine (1910) and Aerial Anarchists (1911). All three channeled the ideas put forth in Fawcett’s Hartmann the Anarchist, Verne’s Master of the World and Wells’ War in the Air. Oh, an aerial torpedo is better known these days as a guided missile by the way.

Once the teens rolled around, quite a number of heavy hitting s.f. stories began getting (more or less) faithful treatment…several more than once. To name just some there’s First Men in the Moon, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1916 style) and Mysterious Island, Frankenstein, Connecticut Yankee, The Lost World, Renard’s The Hands of Orlac and Gaston (“Phantom of the Opera”) Leroux’s Balaoo. Maybe the king of them all is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In my opinion, I don’t think anyone will ever completely determine how many silent adaptations of that particular title were made; but, including burlesques, the count is somewhere around 20 with a whopping 6 in 1920 alone. Even some really putrid potboilers made it to the moving picture screen. Fair warning: don’t ever try to read The Diamond From the Sky!

I’d say the flow in the other direction was not nearly as pronounced….or maybe it’s just plain harder to determine. Sure, there were occasional movie tie-in fictionalizations in Moving Picture Stories Magazine and other publications … and I don’t know how to classify some of Thea Von Harbou’s output … but, speaking in broad terms, there were more quality films made from quality literature than visa versa. That’s pretty much still the case today. What did typically happen is that both forms – again like today – concurrently (give or take) picked up on the scientific trends and speculation of the time. This led to examination of such themes as evolution, death rays (o.k., they were hoaxes but the hoaxes were real), the “monkey gland” and Steinach methods of rejuvenation (a lot of people got taken in there too), futuristic warfare, artificial diamond manufacturing (believe it or not, once a biggie), the problems and solutions concerning trans-oceanic travel, outer space journeys, visitors from other planets, television, radio and wireless based just about anything you could imagine, mechanical men before the term “robot” was even invented, and so on and so on.

5. Much has been written about how social concerns and anxieties of the 1950s and 1970s heavily weighed upon the science fiction films of those eras. Did the social and political climate of the 1910s and 1920s exert a similar effect upon the science fiction films of that era, or did the films mostly shy away from overt or even implicit social commentary in favor of escapism?

Well, there was more censorship back then implying some film-makers were trying to push the envelope. Often viewers in one state would see slightly less footage than in a neighboring one due to some local official’s ready scissors. It was easy enough to cut out offending frames without worrying about dialogue on a soundtrack and those offences many times depended merely upon the individual sensibilities of a select few. I’ve seen a copy of the New York censorship records of the silent version of the British import, High Treason and the handling of its pacifistic viewpoint was considered almost obscene, as I remember.

When you mention the 1950s, I think of Invasion of the Body Snatchers capturing the air of paranoia of the day. Similarly, there was a cycle of rejuvenation films in the 20s that very much captured the hoped-for youthful exuberance of those roaring days. Clara Bow, the It Girl herself, played a flapper in one of them. Likewise, after the Great War, the fantasy of reincarnation definitely tapped into the mass sadness caused by the loss of loved ones.

Speaking of the war, before the U.S. ever entered it, there was a rash of alternate history preparedness / cautionary tales; we already discussed Battle Cry of Peace but there were others too. On the flip side, Thomas Ince’s Civilization was a pacifist statement hoping to avoid further bloodshed. Things were polarized, to say the least.

Even going back to the one and two reelers, women’s suffrage was another topic sometimes addressed; these attempts usually involved one variation or the other of a female controlled world and were handled with satirical humor…. I don’t imagine many of the lady folk were too happy with that. The Last Man on Earth is a feature that we covered with that very theme and tone.

Darwinism pushed even more buttons back then than it does now. I recall researching a silly little 1919 exploitation of the subject called A Scream in the Night. One reviewer really got himself into quite the uproar over it.

6. Despite much notable and innovative work, there wouldn’t really be a science fiction boom until the 1950s, and although the genre and its idioms were a frequent subject for the film serials (more often than not, adapted from comics), there wasn’t much in the way of science fiction features being produced in America during the 1930s and 1940s. What accounts for this drop-off, right when the genre was starting to take off in the pulps?

Tough one, actually. I don’t think that the 40s yielded anything that should legitimately be placed on anyone’s top 100 list after you, maybe, get past Dr. Cyclops (1940). The whole decade seemed to have a lot less creativity and most of it can be discounted easily enough because of the impact and aftermath of WW II.

When it comes to the 30s, things get more dicey. Let’s look at economics first. The pulps were – by their very definition – just about the cheapest form of entertainment to produce; so, in theory, that would account for part of the difference. Yet paradoxically, during the Great Depression when money was tightest, people flocked to the theaters to forget their troubles. So – pretty much – there goes that idea.

The 30s also brought in the talkies and, with it, growing pains. I think it’s fair to speculate that had some impact. If you look at foreign product, the studios initially fought through the new-found language barrier by producing multilingual science fiction releases such as Der/Le (and Transatlantic) Tunnel, Gold/L’or, three different language versions of Brigette Helm in Atlantis and 3 others adapting Curt Siodmak’s FP-1. For some reason, American studios passed on that strategy. Perhaps the inability to find polyglot actors held them back. Or perhaps they felt – at least, in the beginning – that sound technology was lacking and hiding microphones in the proverbial “potted plants” didn’t quite jibe with the special effects required.

Then too, every genre suffers from ups and downs and horror films were then on the rise. Many of the film titles that roll off the tongue from that era were more a Science Fiction / Horror combo than anything: Frankenstein, Jekyll and Hyde, The Invisible Man, King Kong. I’d have to dig down deep and come up with a couple of little-known gems, Men Must Fight and Deluge, as the best pure representatives of 30s American science fiction on film. And…let’s just forget about Just Imagine, shall we?

7. Actually, I kind of liked Just Imagine. Read into that what you will! 🙂 Finally, although our readers may be familiar with such films as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis or George Melies Une Voyage Dans La Lune, what are some of the other silent science fiction films you think are especially worthy of rediscovery and you’d recommend to someone just starting to venture into this wonderful cinematic world?

Andrew, you just opened up Pandora’s Box! My compulsions force me to give a long-winded three-tiered response since I’m keeping my fingers crossed that once enticed, many will want to delve further. Here goes…

(1) Films available on easily obtainable quality DVDs:

– you couldn’t go wrong with any of Fritz Lang’s silent fantastic films but for pure Science Fiction there’s Woman in the Moon. Insist on getting the complete version.
– It’s also hard to go wrong with checking out more by Melies. Voyage a Travers l’Impossible, and Conquête du pôle are in the tradition of Le Voyage dans la lune. La Photographie Electique a Distance is a personal favorite. They might be a good start.
– Conrad Veidt in Orlacs Hände (The Hands of Orlac)
– Barrymore in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
– Rene Clair’s Paris Qui Dort
Le joueur d’échecs a.k.a. The Chess Player is marginal s.f. but such a delightful film on many levels.
Himmelskibet (1916) is an interesting early look at space travel as well as being quite the message movie. You can only get it from the Danish Film Institute in European DVD format. They do ship to the States and it does have English subs. It comes packaged with another Danish s.f. silent called Verdens undergang (a.k.a. The End of the World).
Aelita, Queen of Mars: more foreign space travel…this time from Russia and with a propaganda flavor as well as a bevy of Martian robots.
– I’ve always found Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea just a little bit ponderous but others might disagree. The underwater cinematography is groundbreaking.
– Last but not least, one of the all-but-complete restorations of The Lost World is absolutely essential.
Go for either the David Shepard Image DVD or the George Eastman House version that comes as an added bonus to the Irwin Allen take on the story.

That should provide a solid sampling. Shorts are – except for Melies – excluded since they’re generally sprinkled on compilations and it would be expensive to pursue them that way. In any event, a lot of them pop-up online.

(2) Worthwhile films available in lesser quality via grey-market DVD vendors, thru the trade grapevine or online:

L’uomo Meccanica (a.k.a. The Mechanical Man) and Saturnino Farandola, although now extant in fragments only, are totally zany fun. Abel Gance’s complete La Fin du Monde is a visual masterpiece and deserving of the effort to locate it…but, unlike the vastly inferior Americanized truncation is not really silent. If you ask me, Algol and L’Inhumaine are very under-appreciated and also worth the effort. Mysterious Island has mysteriously never officially been released in video form but it’s out there too. We’ve already mentioned High Treason

As for the shorts, two come to mind for historical significance: The X-Ray Fiend from 1897 might just be the true first cinematic science fiction and Aerial Torpedo as we already talked about (look for this second one under its various names). Edison’s Frankenstein has some nice touches. Or how about Gance again and La Folie du Docteur Tube? Anything from Segundo de Chomón’s s.f. oeuvre would round things out.

(3)Films that should be available!

There are still reels and reels of film sitting in archives that have yet to see the light of day. The complete Exploits of Elaine, a serial starring the famed Pearl White and featuring ominously destructive infra-red rays, a gizmo to revive the dead, a Jekyll-and-Hyde-like villain and full of pseudo-scientific gadgetry, is all a vintage sci fi geek could ask for…and yet it still eludes the masses! And …that’s despite the film’s status on the National Film Registry. “Elaine” is just one example. Perhaps readers of these words will one day join us in clamoring for it and other films like it to be released from captivity.

Anyway, now’s the time to stumble back down off of the soap box and thank you again for your interest. Stay well, Andrew…

Will do Steve! In the meantime, you can purchase American Silent Horror, Science Fiction and Fantasy Feature Films, 1913-1929 at Amazon or preview it at Google!

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