On film history (& why I shouldn’t yawn)

23 Jul

I must admit I’ve never really been interested old films, or film history. People could talk about Alfred Hitchcock or Bette Davis or Metropolis or The Third Man, and it would draw barely a flicker of interest. Not long ago, I started reading around the edges of the massive scholarship on film’s relation with melodrama (drawn by an interest in melodrama), and mostly I’ve been unmoved or even vaguely annoyed by its references to films I’ve never seen, and to the stills of characters fixed in a rictus of desire or fear or shock (like the one below) which appear in so much of this work.

Still from The Cat and the Canary (1927), from filmwolf’s flickr photos.

Very recently, however, I’ve realised that I simply can’t be interested in late 19th and early 20th century theatre without finding out about the development of film in the same period. When I was in Mitchell Library the other week, I was reading newspaper reports of all the suburban vaudeville-cum-picture houses opening up in 1910s Australia: Harry Clay’s Newtown Bridge Theatre (now the eyesore known as The Hub across from Newtown Station in Sydney) being a suggestive example. I’ve also been reading Robert Allen’s account of the way second-tier vaudeville managers became successful in American cities in the first decade of the 20th century by creating hybrid vaudeville/film shows in less-than-swank venues. So the people attracted to these shows were seeing Keystone comedy reels as well as comic acts and acrobats, and it’s useless to cordon off the one from the other and say (as I have until now) that film isn’t my thing.

On top of that: last night I was listening to Ira Sachs talk about Married LIfe, a film set in the 1940s which he directed and co-wrote and is just hitting Australian cinemas now. He had such an acute sense of cinematic history, such an articulate, coolly impassioned sense of the place of his film in it, that it made me rue something of my ignorance.

4 Responses to “On film history (& why I shouldn’t yawn)”

  1. Lidian 3 August 2008 at 7:47 pm #

    I know far too little about old movies for someone who loves them – and you are absolutely right about how they connect with 19th and early 20th century theatre/vaudeville – in fact a lot of vaudevilleans went into silent movies.

    I gave you a BFF award, which is making the rounds of the genealogists – no hurry to do anything about it, just thought you’d like to know! (I will be away soon, so i have to do it now!) Details will be up on Virtual Dime as soon as I can get the post together!

  2. Melissa Bellanta 4 August 2008 at 11:49 am #

    A BFF award: hey thanks! (I had to look it up to find out what it meant)…

  3. Andrea Janes 11 August 2008 at 6:58 pm #


    I found your blog through The Virtual Dime Museum.
    I particularly like this post because it’s always exciting when people open up to things they previously thought they wouldn’t like. Most of my life I thought mystery novels “weren’t my thing” either and now I’m hooked.

    So your post has inspired me to create a top ten list of silent films for people who don’t like silent films. It’ll be films that, in my opinion, stand alone as great movies and can be appreciated by anybody, anywhere, whether they’re into silent films or not.

    It should be up tomorrow.



  4. Melissa Bellanta 15 August 2008 at 2:20 am #

    I had just been thinking that to even begin thinking about early-20thC film I would need some insider’s picks. And then here is your fortuitous response: many thanks – M

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