Tag Archives: silent movies

How Popcorn Saved the Movies



Apologies for the delayed post, readers. Holidays and other necessities of living have gotten in the way of a timely posting since the California wildfires of early November. We’re still recovering as a state but the good news is that we’ve had some rain, the smoke has cleared, and the fires have been put out. Thanks to everyone for your beautiful comments and concern.

In other news, I went to see Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma this evening at the lovely Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley (if you haven’t seen Roma, please rush out. It’s a breathtaking achievement, and takes much influence from prior cinematic movements–I may make a post about this later.) As I waited for the film to start, my mind wandered as I ate my box of popcorn. I ruminated on the origins of popcorn as a movie theater snack, and how it came to be. The story is actually quite an interesting one, with roots in the political and social history of the United States.

Popcorn was a popular street food at fairs and carnivals going back to the 1800s. It was a cheap, tasty treat, a luxury that people from any social class could afford. This, along with its messiness and noise, made it particularly loathsome to those in the burgeoning movie theater business. When the first movie theaters were built, the managers directed their advertising and aesthetic to the highbrow, theatergoing clientele. As the movies were silent and intertitles were used to convey speech, audience members had to be literate, which made movies most accessible to members of the educated upper classes. Patrons dressed in their best clothes, carpets were rolled out in the theater foyer and the audience was expected to be on its best behavior, just as they would be at any other theater. Any distraction such as munching or snacks spilled on the floor was unacceptable, and as such, there was no popcorn or any other food sold in the theater, nor was anything allowed in.


The Embassy Theatre in Seattle, WA shows Greta Garbo’s first talkie, Anna Christie, 1930

Then sound came to the movies. In the years between 1927 and 1929, between the release of The Jazz Singer and the time when sound became industry standard, the movie business went through upheavals in just about every department. Hand cranked cameras had to be replaced with synchronized sound devices. Actors with vocal problems lost their careers. Theaters had to convert their auditoriums to be conducive to sound. And because the need for intertitles disappeared, the movies began to attract a different, less literate, more common crowd. That crowd would frequently show up at the door with a bag of popcorn, which had to be checked along with coats and hats.

The coming of sound happened to coincide with the first signs of the Great Depression. The combination of rising costs due to theater renovations for sound, and a stock market that was starting to spin out of control, was a death knell for many small town theaters. All over the country, theaters closed their doors due to their financial inability to make the changes needed to stay in business.


The Cabrillo Theatre in San Diego, CA

However, people still flocked to the movies. The common man needed to escape from the world of breadlines and unemployment, and for a few cents he could do just that at a movie theater. Some particularly clever theater owners saw a way to keep the doors open for those needing entertainment. They tossed aside their hesitancy to allow snacks, and began to allow outdoor popcorn vendors to pay for space inside the theater, getting customers in the door to see a movie and bringing in the extra fees brought by the vendors. Eventually, theaters began to sell popcorn themselves. Using the extra money from popcorn sales, theaters were able to satisfy their clientele and survive the Depression. Other theaters caught on and began selling popcorn, saving themselves from the brink of closure. Eventually they added concession stands that included candy and drinks, and their profits skyrocketed.

The 1940s confirmed popcorn as the ultimate movie snack. World War II saw a decrease in the amount of candy and drinks that could be sold, due to the strict war era rationing requirements on sugar. Because of this, theaters heavily pushed popcorn as the snack to buy, and it has stuck ever since. Now, it is an absolute necessity. Due to the complex web of distributors and studios that go into bringing a film to your local theater, none of the money from ticket sales actually goes to your theater. The theater only earns money through the sale of concessions, of which popcorn is still the biggest sell.

So next time you go to the movies, be sure to get a bag of popcorn, support your theater, and remember this history as you eat!




Hello readers! I am happy to report that following a 2-week delay in delivery, the USPS has finally succeeded in delivering my next two Warner Archive titles, and they are great ones. I will start with one of my favorite silent comedies, a great treat from director King Vidor and one of Marion Davies’ masterpieces–The Patsy (1928).

You may notice that I am going very heavy on the Marion Davies titles lately. We are lucky in that the Warner Archive has several Marion Davies films available, and I would like to review all of them for the blog.

Marion Davies is one of the most severely underrated actresses on the screen. She had extraordinary natural abilities for mimicry, physical comedy, and timing, and at times she gives off an almost uncanny Carole Lombard vibe. Indeed, in Captured on Film: The Story of Marion Davies, Kevin Brownlow states that Marion Davies could be called the first screwball comedienne, before the term was coined for Carole Lombard. Critics saw that Marion had a certain charm and a unique ability to portray zany and cunning characters, but they couldn’t attribute her style to any specific type of comedy that had come before. That style, Brownlow argues, was a sort of proto-screwball comedy.

Nowhere in Marion Davies’ filmography is this more present than in The Patsy. Marion had dabbled in comedy since the early 1920s, and always successfully, despite the misgivings of her boss and live-in romantic partner, William Randolph Hearst. Hearst wanted to see Marion in costume dramas, in roles that would put her in an elegant and dignified light, and not in what he considered to be the lowbrow world of slapstick comedy. Though many of her early Hearst costume dramas are not inherently great films, Marion had great dramatic skill and makes them work to the full extent that the material will allow her. Marion did Hearst’s bidding in terms of what he wanted for her pictures, but comedy was always her preference–and where she felt she was at her best. Hearst finally allowed her to test her comedic waters to great acclaim in The Red Mill in 1927, and finally got her wish granted in full when The Patsy came along in 1928.

Centering on the story of a young woman who is picked on by her family and tries to seduce a beau of her sister’s, The Patsy may be Marion Davies’ best film (perhaps a photo finish with Show People from the same year). She gets ample time to show off her delightful comedic skill (at one point doing wicked impressions of Mae Murray, Lillian Gish, and Pola Negri–so accurate are these impressions that one would think the three actresses were actually in the movie), and deliver some of the most unbelievable lines during a scene when she is pretending to be insane (to get what she wants from her domineering mother). One of my favorite title cards in the movie is “A caterpillar is nothing but an upholstered worm.” It is a comedy that leaves the audience laughing out loud at nearly every line.

Marion’s impersonations of Murray, Gish, and Negri were a familiar sight to Marion’s frequent party guests at Hearst Castle. Hearst, who delighted in Marion’s incredible knack for mimicry, often asked her to perform impersonations to entertain the guests at parties they gave together. Marion Davies was extremely well-liked in Hollywood, and given the fondness that the Hollywood community had for her, nearly all the stars she impersonated were beloved friends. No one was safe from Marion’s wickedly accurate impressions, and everyone seemed to delight in them as much as she did.

The Patsy was also a significant movie for Marie Dressler, who played the matriarch of the family. After 10 years of not working, Dressler returned to the screen in 1927 for several small-scale flops. It seemed as though she would remain in a career slump, until The Patsy. This was the film that singlehandedly revived Marie Dressler’s career, and after The Patsy she skyrocketed into the 1930s, becoming one of the biggest box office draws of the early sound era.

If you would like to order The Patsy, click here. In fact, if you haven’t seen it, I urge you to order The Patsy. It is one of the most hilarious movies of the 1920s, and you will not regret it. This movie is also a great introduction to Marion Davies, for people who are not familiar with her work, and I always recommend this and Show People as the masterpieces in Marion Davies’ filmography.

See you next time!

HEARING THE SILENTS: Technology and the Accessibility of Silent Films

IMAGE DESCRIPTION: Logo for TalkingFlix (“talking” in green, “flix” in black, bordered by three black lines indicating sound. Below, on blue background with white lettering: “The first global Audio-Described On-Demand entertainment platform. Below that: URL of talkingflix.com, next to “A service by Crossway Media Solutions.”

Earlier this morning, a friend of mine approached me with the announcement that she has just learned of TalkingFlix, the first fully audio-described video service, to be launched later this year. This is big news for many blind and visually-impaired movie lovers, who have been unfairly overlooked in most mainstream movie outlets. Online video streaming services on the whole have been slow in adapting their films to be accessible to people with hearing and visual difficulties, and though Netflix has promised to add captions to 100% of its movies by the end of 2014 to make them accessible to deaf customers, little has been done to make movies accessible to blind viewers. TalkingFlix would add audio description, a method of describing a scene verbally to set the scene for a viewer who can’t see it, to 100% of its movies as its primary business model.

While the emergence of TalkingFlix is exciting news in itself, my friend, who is blind, immediately saw the implications for what this means regarding a certain group of films that she has not as yet been able to experience–the silents.

IMAGE DESCRIPTION: A scene from the silent film CITY LIGHTS, in which a seated woman in a black coat is handing a white flower to Charlie Chaplin, who is standing across from her. She is looking past him (the character is blind) and smiling.

Silent films are a bit of a conundrum when it comes to accessibility. Due to the built-in captions and lack of reliance on dialogue, silent films seem custom-made for the deaf community. Silent film festivals draw huge numbers of deaf patrons and sign-language interpreters are often employed for pre-movie talks and discussions to make the festival fully accessible for deaf audiences. However, for the very same reasons, these films have been largely inaccessible to blind audiences. Without the accompaniment of a seeing person to explain what is happening visually, a blind viewer would not be able to enjoy a silent movie to its full extent. With the advent of this service, all that has the possibility to change.

The website for TalkingFlix does not expressly mention silent movies, and it is likely that due to the novelty of silent film for blind customers, the idea is not on their radar. But the website has an anonymous survey that prospective customers can fill out to “shape TalkingFlix into your personal entertainment center.” If you, like my friend, would like to see silent films on TalkingFlix, be sure to visit their website and take the survey to help them shape the company into one that will allow silent films to be accessible to a wider audience. Not only will it allow silent films to be experienced in a completely different way, it will do that much more to extend the visibility of silent movies into a broader demographic, something that is much needed as many of these movies are in danger of fading away.

Be sure to visit the website, take the survey, and stay up-to-date on the imminent launch of TalkingFlix!

PROFILE: Clara Bow

During the Silent Film Festival, I promised that I would do a profile of Clara Bow, who I think is probably one of the most alluring personalities to come out of the silent era, and beyond. As today, July 29, is her birthday, there is certainly no better time for a profile! Hers was a true rags-to-riches story, rising from the very lowest depths of poverty, abuse and trauma to being the most popular film star of her day, receiving 8,000 fan letters a week and earning the highest salary in all of Hollywood–$35,000 per week. For this reason alone she is a fascinating character–add that to the charming, exuberant, and adorable persona she exhibited onscreen, coexisting with an irresistible sex appeal, and you have the definition of what it means to be a star.

She suffered greatly throughout her life due to memories of her difficult childhood, and battled serious mental illness for much of her adult life, its trigger likely a combination of genetics from her mother (a paranoid schizophrenic) and a life that was beyond tolerable. However, through it all, she is remembered not for her troubles and struggles (as so many are), but for that singular “je ne sais quoi” that was her trademark onscreen.

Born on July 29, 1905 during an intense heat wave that was expected to kill her and her mother alike, Clara Bow’s parents never bothered to give her a birth certificate. Her mother was a diagnosed schizophrenic who was institutionalized when Clara was 16 after an attempt to kill her, and her father was a deadbeat alcoholic who some thought was mentally challenged, prone to abusive outbursts at his wife and daughter. One doesn’t have to look too deeply to notice what might have caused Clara’s later problems, but none of this deterred Clara, who was intent on becoming an actress. She applied for the Brewsters’ magazine “Fame and Fortune” contest in 1921, and to her surprise, won first place.

After a small part in Beyond the Rainbow (1922) that was cut out of the final print, Bow got her first real part–as that of a tomboy in Down to the Sea in Ships, which was released in 1923 and documented life in the whaling community. She was only 16 at the time and got 10th billing, but received considerable acclaim for her role and from there, her career took off.

“Down to the Sea in Ships,” 1923

She was signed to Preferred Pictures in 1923 and stayed with them until 1925, making such pictures as Grit (1924) and Helen’s Babies (also 1924) before signing with Paramount, where she made her biggest splash. The public immediately took to her bubbly, almost childlike presence onscreen that was juxtaposed with an intense sexuality, and she became the biggest box office draw in the business. She made 8 pictures in 1926 alone, and at the peak of her career during this period she was receiving 8,000 fan letters a week, more by far than any other Hollywood personality at that time. 1927 saw even bigger success, with It and Wings becoming the movies that defined her as a star. It provided her with the nickname “The ‘It’ Girl,” a name by which she is still known today.
Wings has the distinction of being the first film ever to win Best Picture.

It, 1927

Wings, 1927

With the popularization of sound after The Jazz Singer (1927), Clara Bow’s career looked uncertain. The studios were eager to make fewer and fewer silent films in preference for “talking pictures,” which spelled bigger profits for the studios but major problems for many silent stars. The main issue with Clara Bow was her strong Brooklyn accent that the studio found distracting and not suitable for sound movies. With her career in serious jeopardy, Clara managed to tone her accent down a bit for the sake of keeping work, and even sang some musical numbers.

However, even with these modifications, Clara was simply not cut out for sound films. Her career waned, and she made her last film in 1933, entitled Hoop-La. Clara married cowboy actor Rex Bell, later to become Lieutenant Governor of Nevada, in 1931, and the couple had 2 sons, Tony and George, to whom Clara devoted her recently unemployed life to raising. Shortly thereafter, she began to experience symptoms of a mental illness, which, after a stay at the Institute of Living, was diagnosed as schizophrenia, the same disease that had plagued her mother. As schizophrenia is strongly genetically linked, it is highly likely that she inherited it from her mother, and doctors pinpointed the beginning of the illness to the night when her mother tried to kill her. Numerous tests and treatments were tried on Clara, but eventually Clara tired of them and voluntarily left the institution, spending her last years alone at her home in Culver City. She died of a heart attack in 1965, at the age of 60.

On her birthday, I remember her vivacious, active spirit that graced so many films of the silent era, and all that she gave to the movies. She is one of the great icons in movie history, and it is always a pleasure and a joy to watch her onscreen or simply to see her in photos.

Happy birthday, Clara!

Clara Bow and family–son Tony, husband Rex Bell, and son George.