Tuesday, September 28, 2021

September 29 is National Silent Movie Day!

 
As part of the Silent Movie Day Blogathon, Better Living Through Television comes out of semi-retirement to post about TV and its relationship with silent film.  Click on each image for a readable enlargement.

Vintage Mack Sennett comedies, of course, were seen in chopped-up highlights on HOWDY DOODY, and we've posted before on the silent animation that was being peddled by distributors for the earliest cartoon shows.  As adult programming, silent movies had a harder row to hoe... although, on the local level, a few brave souls gave them a chance.


On June 29, 1953, KRON-TV, San Francisco's NBC affiliate, aired THE EAGLE with Rudolph Valentino as a prime time entry.  No ratings info is available, although the fact that it was slotted opposite I LOVE LUCY's second season finale strongly suggests that it was not a success.

 
During the last third of 1956, Steve Allen reduced his TONIGHT SHOW duties to three days per week (Ernie Kovacs hosted the other two), and the show was cut back from 90 minutes to an hour.  WNBC in New York City took over the remaining half-hour with a local show called OLD, OLD STORY, consisting of early Hal Roach and Mack Sennett comedies, such as Sennett's LIZZIES OF THE FIELD (1924) and Roach's DODGE YOUR DEBTS (1921) (which starred Harold Lloyd's lesser known brother Gaylord).  The listing above is for November 30, 1956 and if you're a silent comedy expert but don't recall that title, it's actually FATTY AND MABEL ADRIFT (1916), with Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle reduced to "we'd better not publicize him so we don't get any nasty letters."

By 1961, Robert Youngson's two silent film compilations (THE GOLDEN AGE OF COMEDY and WHEN COMEDY WAS KING) had proved to be huge draws for kids, while on TV, both the Hal Roach "Little Rascals" and MGM "Our Gang" sound shorts were big successes.  National Telepix put together two 78-episode series culled from various silent comedy series.  The first, MISCHIEF MAKERS, came mainly from the silent Our Gang series produced by Roach.  The second series, still untitled in this trade ad, was eventually called COMEDY CAPERS (featuring "Larry Seaman" among other unknowns).


The early sixties also presented some silent-based prime time shows of varying quality.  FLICKER FLASHBACKS, produced by Jay Ward and his TV cartoon crew, used snippets from comedies, dramas and action pictures assembled in a half-hazard, frantic pace, along with "dialogue" and narration chock full of cheap laughs.  More respectfully, SILENTS PLEASE used vintage footage to pay homage to the era and its stars.  Neither series lasted very long.



When network TV gave up on silents, public (or educational) television picked up the slack.  The WTTW, Chicago-produced series THE TOY THAT GREW UP, which debuted in July 1968, presented uncut features and short subjects in the same respectful manner as SILENTS PLEASE.  Befitting its Public TV origins, host Don Ferris provided background information about the films and their stars.


My initial exposure to Charlie Chaplin was in the November 9, 1969 broadcast of Youngson's 3rd feature, THE DAYS OF THRILLS AND LAUGHTER (1961).  As I freely admitted in its introduction, my book CHAPLIN'S VINTAGE YEAR got its title from the narration in this terrific compilation.  I'm certain the excited 10-year-old that I was sat joyously in front of the set on this Sunday afternoon... and just as certain that I was not permitted to stay up for the 8:30 PM rebroadcast, given I had school the next morning!

Around that same time, New York's Public TV station WNET-13 would run Chaplin comedies regularly on weekday afternoons during Christmas break and in the summer.  These shows were hosted by Herb Graff, a faculty member of NYU and well-known silent comedy aficionado.  In July 1973, Graff and WNET expanded the scope of this programming with a series that highlighted several comedians.  This series provided my first exposure to Buster Keaton and Harry Langdon.




Television's best-known silent film program is probably THE SILENT YEARS, produced for Public TV by renowned film collector and historian Paul Killiam (who'd been one of the contributors to SILENTS PLEASE), which debuted in NYC in July 1971. (What was it about July that Public TV thought ideal for silent film programming?)  Fondly remembered for William Perry's fine piano scores and the erudite Orson Welles as host, THE SILENT YEARS introduced many future historians not only to comedic gems such as THE GOLD RUSH (1925) and THE GENERAL (1926), but also terrific exemplars of silent action-adventure (THE MARK OF ZORRO, 1920) and drama (ORPHANS OF THE STORM, 1922).

16 comments:

Brittaney said...

How interesting. I'm glad to hear public television did it's part to help keep silent films alive. I'm even happier that silent films are more readily available today through streaming platforms!

Anonymous said...

Ok, hold on... this blog has been dead for 6 years, suddenly come to life - and no one is going to mention it?

Michael J. Hayde said...

I mentioned it, right at the top!

Michaelm said...

Thank you for this post. It is nice to see television has kept those films alive.

I leave in Europe (Belgium), and from the end of the 90th until 2 years ago, we had only one silent film per month, around midnight. I remember programming the recording with my VHS and being very sad when film was delayed and so not fully recorded.

Today, we have one Chaplin a year and stop. I would really love to see more of them.

Michael J. Hayde said...

Thank you, Brittaney. You're right: the films are easier to access nowadays. But there's very little chance that future generations will stumble across them while flipping channels. (Do people do 'channel flipping' anymore?)

Michael J. Hayde said...

Thank you, Michaelm. I guess you're unable to take advantage of streaming options or DVD/Blu-ray releases?

Caftan Woman said...

All hail those intrepid programmers!

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation brightened our lives with a series of Laurel and Hardy silent shorts with new scores by composer Horace Lapp. The network would re-run the series well into the 1970s. Of course, it only made me want more and thank goodness for PBS across the border.

Michaelm said...

I can take some advantage of the streaming platform or DVD, but I think television is different from them: when you subscribe to such a platform or connect to youtube, you need to search for what you will watch (apart from the few proposals they give you). On television, you can choose your program, but your choice is more limited and what is shown is more easily accessible. At least in my view.

Michael J. Hayde said...

Thanks for commenting, Caftan Woman! Do you know if those scores exist, or if the CBC has kept those shows in an archive? It'd be wonderful to hear them with the films on some future release.

Michael J. Hayde said...

Michaelm, your observations are correct... but I think more and more people are getting away from the idea of "appointment television" where a handful of shows are seen by a vast majority of TV viewers at a specific time. The kind of numbers drawn weekly by the most popular network series (whatever that is at the moment) would've meant cancellation 40 years ago... maybe less. As you noted in your initial comment: Chaplin is the only 'name' big enough to draw viewers to a silent movie, and even then it's only good for one a year. Here in the US, variety shows are extinct, unless they're wrapped up in a competition for fame and riches, like "America's Got Talent." No longer does anyone get to sample something new and unexpected because "it's the only thing on right now" or "it caught my eye as I was flipping channels."

Lea S. said...

Thank you so much for this detailed article, Michael! Great addition to the blogathon. It does seem that television played a major role in keeping silents "alive," although not usually in the best condition.

Michael J. Hayde said...

Thank you, Lea, and thanks for co-hosting the Blogathon! As far as keeping the silents alive, I think what television did most of all was stimulating an entire generation to seek out more information and especially to get involved in keeping alive interest in those films. Those of us who work in film preservation, writing, scoring... catching a silent (or several) on TV as children and teenagers went beyond being entertained. It turned into a life-changing experience.

Silver Screenings said...

Great topic for the blogathon. It was interesting to see the relationship between silent films and television, and I feel like a real Smarty Pants after reading your fab essay. Thanks!

Michael J. Hayde said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael J. Hayde said...

Thank you, Silver Screenings; I'm glad you enjoyed it! Your own blog is very well done... highly recommended!

Orang Basikal said...

I discovered silent films through those PBS programs in the 1970s and have loved them ever since. I still remember the thrill of seeing them for the first time. Until then I had assumed that the more "lifelike" something was, the better it was. Thus color and sound over black and white and silent. It has been my pleasure to bring friends to their first silent movie showing (when it's a really good one, with suitable accompaniment) and see their reaction. People just don't believe how powerful these films can be until they have experienced them.