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Audrey Kupferberg: One Hundred Years Ago At The Movies

Audrey Kupferberg

In thinking about the Spanish Flu pandemic that lasted approximately from the spring of 1918 to the summer of 1919, a crisis that appears to have begun in Kansas, not Spain, I am interested to read of its effect on the movie industry.  Richard Brody wrote a piece on this subject for the March 17 issue of the New Yorker magazine.

He notes that many people thought they were living through the end of the motion picture industry.  Film studios closed.  Movie theaters across the country, although apparently not all in New York, closed.  Newly completed film productions were kept in the can, only to be released after the end of the pandemic.  I remember hearing that the masterful film director D.W. Griffith shot one of his most poetic films, Broken Blossoms, during the crisis, and his crew and cast in between takes wore masks for protection.

In spite of the naysayers, the motion picture survived as an entity and as an industry.  Even as early as 1918, movies had a solid place in American and international popular culture.  The business of movies was close to a quarter century old.  So, even with the failure of some studios and distribution and exhibition companies, the movies lived on to see a better time.  It should be noted that in the current COVID crisis, we have a vast audience of in-home viewers, while a hundred years ago, this outlet was not possible, probably not even imagined.

Looking back one hundred years just after the end of the Spanish Flu, an avid film goer had a fine choice of movies to enjoy.  By 1920, movies may not have boasted the sounds of canned music and dialog, but the form had developed greatly, and most, if not all, movies were screened while accompanied by live piano, organ, or orchestral music. 

In 1920, audiences flocked to see Griffith’s incredibly moving and exciting melodrama Way Down East, starring Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess.  (Yes, the star system was solidly in place by 1920.). Shot partly in Griffith’s Mamaroneck NY studio and also in White River Junction, VT, the story follows an innocent gal who is lured into a fake marriage, becomes pregnant, loses her sickly baby, and faces life without anyone to love her. It’s composed of brilliant story-telling and fine direction, and performed by dedicated actors who took risks to their health balancing their bodies on ice floes in a frozen river in some nail-biting scenes.

Another feature that was released one hundred years ago is The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a German production.  Caligari was an experimental film in which all the sets are abstractly painted in the German Expressionist style.  Scenery is angled to mirror the psychologically disturbed mindset of the film.  Can a film have a mindset, you might ask?  Yes, well, I believe this film has a sort of mindset. Conrad Veidt gives a uniquely stylized performance as a somnambulist who is directed to abduct a young woman from her bed. In addition to its story, there are implications about mistrusting important men who are responsible for our lives.

Charles Chaplin, who took much longer than the typical filmmaker to create his films, particularly those made after the pandemic, was shooting The Kid during 1920, and it came out in 1921.  This film brings me to tears every time I see it.  In it, a young woman leaves a baby in the back seat of a fine-looking car thinking that she will give her baby to a family that can afford to raise him properly.  Instead, the baby inadvertently falls into the hands of the little Tramp, Chaplin’s stock character.  He and the little boy bond in love over several years, and then a social worker insists on taking the child away to a workhouse for his own good.  It’s a superb film, imaginative and heart-breaking.

My late husband, Rob Edelman, would not be pleased if I did not include another highlight film of 1920:  Headin’ Home, an imagined biopic about Babe Ruth, and, yes, actually starring twenty-five-year-old Babe Ruth.  It’s not accurate, but what a delight to see!

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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