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THE FORGOTTEN ARTWORK OF SILENT FILMS

By now most film buffs know how good silent movies looked, in contrast to popular opinion based on the scratchy, washed-out excerpts shown on television for years. But in watching Olive Films’ Blu-ray release of William S. Hart’s Wagon Tracks (1919) I was thunderstruck by its sheer physical beauty. Not only does Joe August’s camerawork bring this story of an 1850 wagon train—and one man’s quest for revenge—to vivid life, but the narrative title cards are artfully illustrated.

At first, these “intertitles,” as they have come to be called, were strictly functional. Some of them bore the logo of the releasing company (Keystone, American Biograph, D.W. Griffith), but over time filmmakers realized there was no reason not to make them attractive. Thus began a tradition that continued well into the 1920s, encouraging visual wit and even animation.

Wagon Tracks has many fine examples which I have included here as samples. It helps that this Blu-ray was transferred in high-definition from a nearly-pristine 35mm nitrate print at the Library of Congress. I’ve seen many fine silent films on home video but I can’t remember another that looks this razor-sharp while retaining its original color tints. The Library’s moving image curator Rob Stone tells me, “Grading on the film was done by Patrick Kennedy up in our lab. He has been around for 30+ years (most of that in Hollywood at various studios) and knows his stuff.”

If you’ve never seen a vintage tinted print of a silent feature you’re really missing something. As Kevin Brownlow wrote in his landmark book The Parade’s Gone By, tinting was the norm, not the exception. Audiences came to expect it and smart directors made ample use of the process. The use of dark blue tints gave birth to day-for-night shots. “Regular daylight scenes were tinted amber, fire scenes were red, early morning scenes were gold, and there was wide range of subtler tints, such as peach-glow, for firelight or sunsets. These tints were not just a substitute for color—they were also remarkably effective in creating, and changing, the atmosphere of scenes and heightening the dramatic effect.”

There was another form of color in the silent era: toning. Brownlow explains, “Toning was a process which converted the blacks to color but left the highlights untouched. When a tint was added to toned stock, a two-color effect was obtained.” The great William K. Everson was always proud to show off a 16mm print that was both tinted and toned.

If you’re fond of William S. Hart, Wagon Tracks shows off the star at his best. Not exactly subtle, he’s effective all the same when he learns that his beloved brother has been killed under mysterious circumstances. Jane Novak is an effective leading lady and the snarling, mustachioed villain is well played by Lloyd Bacon, who went on to become a prolific director in the talkie era with such films as 42nd Street, Marked Woman, The Oklahoma Kid, and Knute Rockne All American on his résumé. Hart’s working team of screenwriter C. Gardner Sullivan and cameraman Joe (later Joseph) August provide the kind of spare, no-nonsense morality tale Hart’s fans came to expect. An excellent piano score is provided on the Olive Films release by Andrew Simpson.

Yet it’s those title cards that stand out to me as much as the film itself. This work was seldom credited but it’s part of what makes silent movies so endearing. If you’re not already aware of next week’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival, it’s an event you don’t want to miss. If you can’t attend, DVD and Blu-ray releases from such distributors as Olive Films, Flicker Alley, and Kino Lorber are a welcome alternative.

 

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight.

He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies.

His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia.

He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation.

He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?)

He holds court at leonardmaltin.com. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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