Flicker Alley’s latest Blu-ray release is one of their most fascinating yet, as it offers viewers a sort of film history potpourri, a grab bag of silent film ephemera centered on the lives of average Americans and their roles in the production and exhibition of silent films. A pair of documentaries lie at the core of We’re in the Movies. Stephen Schaller’s When You Wore a Tulip and I Wore a Big Red Rose (1983) accounts for the set’s titular itinerant filmmaking and Iain Kennedy’s Palace of Silents (2010) the titular palace of silent, of course. Add to that a selection of six shorts dating from 1914 to 1937 supplementing the documentaries and Flicker Alley’s We’re in the Movies proves to be a well-rounded sampling of pictures exploring our historical relationship with silent cinema.
When You Wore a Tulip and I Wore a Big Red Rose explores Schaller’s rediscovery of the 1914 one-reeler, The Lumberjack—the oldest surviving film made in Wisconsin. Shot by itinerant filmmakers using only local talent, The Lumberjack provides Schaller with the ammunition he needs to uncover the cinematic history of Wausau, Wisconsin. With the rediscovered film and a host of living Wausau locals who recall The Lumberjack’s filming, Schaller reconstructs the history of the film’s production, including the death of the film’s cameraman, and the reasons for its nearly 70-year storage in one Wausau man’s workshop. Schaller’s keen interest in The Lumberjack motivates his subjects—the people of Wausau—to reminisce about the good-old days, days when Wausau was a booming lumber town capable of inspiring a motion picture. When You Wore a Yellow Tulip is a touching and absorbing time capsule of a picture that Schaller packs to the seams with insight into the silent picture era. Even the music in the film is provided by a silent film era pianist who demonstrates for Schaller what music she would have played under what circumstances, and her playing provides When You Wore a Yellow Tulip’s soundtrack. Sure, that’s perhaps only tangentially related to the central questions of the film at best, but you certainly can’t fault a filmmaker for striving to give viewers a bit of added value.
Palace of Silents: The Silent Movie Theatre in Los Angeles relates the often bizarre history of The Silent Movie Theatre located on Fairfax Avenue in L.A. Built in 1942, the 150-seat theater has not only introduced generations of filmgoers to silent films, but has also itself proven to be a worthy cinematic subject, having become the preferred stomping ground for a cavalcade of eccentric characters. Although the clandestine, late-night sexcapades and murder of one of the theater’s operators make Palace of Silents an incredibly compelling feature in its own right, the staying power of the film is in the passion Iain Kennedy captures in the interviews presented throughout. The Silent Movie Theatre stirs up incredible emotion in the interviewees and their love for the place rings through loud and clear—so much so that I dare say it will inspire most any viewer in the greater Los Angeles area as yet unfamiliar with the theater to make a pilgrimage there posthaste.
Also included in the collection are Schaller’s subject, The Lumberjack (1914); Our Southern Mountaineers (1918), In the Moonshine Country (1918), and Mountain Life (1918), a trio of short documentaries about the inhabitants of Tennessee’s eastern mountains and the “moonshine country” of northern Georgia and Kentucky; and finally, Huntingdon’s Hero (1934) and The Kidnappers Foil (1937), two local talent films shot in Pennsylvania and Texas, respectively. It’s this collection of shorts that really provide We’re in the Movies cohesiveness. Bridging When You Wore a Yellow Tulip’s survey of one town’s involvement in a “local talent film” and Palace of Silents’ exploration of one theater’s role in resisting the prevailing trends in American, these six shorts reinforce the thesis of this collection, that the movies and their audiences are inextricable at even the most fundamental levels of production and exhibition. It’s a refreshing reminder in an era of ever-increasing media corporatization and concentration of ownership that we have the power to influence the media environment in which we live, that it all need not be in service of the wealthiest few in some high-rise board rooms.