The silent film has gotten a bit of a boost recently: The Artist, a modern silent “classic,” scooped up many BAFTA nominations, won big at the Golden Globes, and will probably fare pretty well at the Oscars too. I haven’t seen it yet, but my thesis research into the career of Anita Loos has meant that I’ve recently spent time immersing myself in the art of silent cinema.
Loos wrote an incredible number of screenplays, treatments, and scenarios during the silent era, and continued working in the talkies both pre- and post-Hayes Code. Many of these films are now lost, but several of them have luckily been preserved. Even better, a handful are available to watch for free through the Internet Archive.
While these early silents aren’t the best demonstration of Loos’s vivid wit and style, they are a fascinating glimpse into the work of a young (very young) artist who is just getting started.
For a more scholarly take on Loos’s silent film writing work, I highly recommend Laura Frost’s article, “Blondes Have More Fun: Anita Loos and the Language of Silent Cinema.”
The New York Hat | 1912
The New York Hat was directed by D W Griffith for the Biograph Studio in 1912. It has many of Griffith’s stock players in it. You may spot Mae Marsh as a gossip or Lillian Gish as a customer in the store but the main roles are played by Lionel Barrymore as the pastor and Mary Pickford as he girl. The script was written by Anita Loos.
This 16-minute short film was Loos’s third screenplay and the very first to be produced. She earned $25 for it. It was filmed at Fort Lee, New Jersey, where many silent films were produced in the early days of cinema.
Loos would go on to write title cards for Griffith’s Intolerance, a huge boost for her burgeoning career.
His Picture in the Papers | 1916
A young man can only get the woman he loves if he becomes famous, and manages to get his picture in the newspapers. He determines to let nothing stand in the way of his doing exactly that, and in the process winds up getting involved with a gang of criminals and a locomotive chase.
This hour-long silent film was written by Anita Loos (still quite early in her career) and directed by her future husband, John Emerson. It starred Douglas Fairbanks. Loos write five films for Fairbanks and made him quite a star.
Her witty writing style is on display here in the title cards, which play with ideas of language, reading, and thinking. For example, a title card introduces Count Xxerkzsxxv, with a note reading, “To those of you who read titles aloud, you can’t pronounce the Count’s name. You can only think it.”
The Telephone Girl and the Lady | 1912
The Musketeers of Pig Alley | 1912
Made in 1913, it has a lovely performance by Lilian Gish which should remind you why she became a great star. Harry Cary who later did unbelievable stunts for John Ford and other Western directors is also in the picture. He is the tough looking gang member. Notice the interesting crowd scenes in the alley and on the street where every member of the crowd has a part to play. With Griffith pictures, always look fr the AB which protects their copyright. Also notice the clear suggestion of corruption in the police at the end.
American Aristocracy | 1916
A young man (Douglas Fairbanks) fights to overcome a piratical arms smuggler and to win the heart of a rich man’s daughter.
The Mysteries of the Leaping Fish | 1916
Coke Ennyday, the scientific detective, divides his own time in periods for “Sleep”, “Eat”, “Dope” and “Drink”. In fact he’s used to overcome every situation with drugs: consuming it to increase his energies or injecting it in his opponents to KO them. To help the police he discovers a contraband of opium (which he eagerly tastes) transported with “Leaping Fishes”, and the blackmail of a mysterious man who wants to marry the “fish blower” girl. Will Coke be able to free the girl?