SIlent Film, Writing and Culture

Grit. Refined.

What a Week. Who Needs a Drink?

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It’s a gloomy morning here in northeast Florida, storms moving in and out, coming off the river outside my window.  Weather aside, it’s been a gloomy week all around. It started out with singing at a funeral and each day following has brought news of more loss. I feel the need for sunshine (in both senses of the word) and a cocktail to look forward to later, so I’ve decided to squeeze the largesse of oranges that have accumulated on my counter and sometime after 5:00 I’ll make an Orange Blossom and raise my glass to the gone and to the grieving.

Here’s a recipe I found from 1913:

One portion gin
One portion orange juice
Dip a spoon into honey, and dissolve in the gin only what honey adheres to the spoon.
Then add the orange juice, fill with ice, shake well, and strain into a cocktail glass.

I’m not typically a fan of sweet drinks, but there’s something about the simplicity of ingredients, the directive with the spoon, the use of honey that appeals to me. And of course, since it’s a prohibition era drink, there are stories surrounding it in the silent film era. And while I’m sure there are many instances of Orange Blossoms being enjoyed under circumstances that didn’t end in death or mayhem, these are some of the better known stories:

*It’s documented that Virgina Rappe drank numerous Orange Blossoms the night she died at Fatty Arbuckle’s infamous party at the Hotel St. Francis in San Francisco.

*My beloved Louise Brooks was drinking Orange Blossoms with Charlie Chaplin in the midst of their two month affair in New York (he was between films, she was transitioning from being a Ziegfeld girl to a Hollywood actress) when, as the story goes, he began chasing her around with his “glowing red penis.” Chaplin believed dousing his Little Tramp (sorry) in iodine would help him avoid venereal disease. Other versions of this story have him chasing after a room full of chorus girls…

*The Orange Blossom was supposedly D.W. Griffith’s cocktail of choice. So much so, in his later days holed up at the Knickerbocker Hotel in LA, it was said he kept a supply of oranges in his room to have at the ready to make his favorite drink.

*Hours before his still unsolved murder, famed silent director, William Desmond Taylor (aka William Cunningham Deane-Tanner), enjoyed Orange Blossoms with Mabel Normand at his apartment. Below is the police photo of the cocktail tray taken at the scene.

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Hmm. Not such a cheery drink after all. Still, I’m hopeful that sweet honey and the tart juice of a few freshly squeezed oranges will be enough to offset, at least a little, a bitter and lamentable week.

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Gregory Robinson’s All Movies Love the Moon

All Movies Love the Moon

Of course it’s a book right up my alley, prose poems on silent film, an intersection of said films with culture (both historical and contemporary) juxtaposed with photographs of title cards. Gregory Robinson’s All Movies Love the Moon (Rose Metal Press, 2014) both instructs and delights. These poems move between summary and philosophy, simultaneously revealing the intrinsically compelling details while also allowing those details to uncover and discover their own truth. One of my favorite poems has to do with Lillian Gish (I know, no surprise there) and her meager role in Griffith’s Intolerance.

It’s been said that Griffith didn’t like to feature the same actresses consecutively for large roles out of apprehension that they’d begin to expect to always be the star. Perhaps, with Gish coming off the heels of her role of Elsie in Birth of a Nation, he decided to give her only the small role of the mother rocking the cradle. That’s all she does. Looks over the cradle, concerned and rocks it. Of course, it’s a beautifully lit and staged scene and along with the words of Whitman’s poem, “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” dramatically ties the various historical segments together. But I often wondered if her feelings were hurt by this casting. In her autobiography, The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me, she makes no mention of direct disappointment, but does state this: My role as the Eternal Mother took less than an hour to film. Nevertheless, I was closer to Intolerance than anyone else except Billy Bitzer and Jimmy Smith, the cutter. I felt there was more of me in this picture than in any other I had ever played in. Perhaps because I wasn’t acting a long role, Mr Griffith took me into his confidence as never before, talking over scenes before he filmed them, having me watch all the rushes, even accepting some of my ideas. He sent me to the darkroom to pick the best takes and to help Jimmy with the cutting. At night, as I watched the day’s rushes, I saw the film take shape and marveled at what Mr. Griffith was creating. 

That passage feels genuine in its recalling, but I can’t help but read a bit of justification in there are well. A building up of her behind the scenes presence compensating her lack of on-screen presence. I think that’s why I like Gregory Robinson’s poem titled, “Intolerance”so much. In it Griffith gives her direction, reassuring her about the small role and her beauty, cajoling and appeasing her. The poem could be merely wry, but Robinson lets the immediacy of the moment meld directly with all that the film might stand for:

“Stop? No, you can never stop. You would think, wouldn’t you? Maybe it would be more loving to call it quits. But love’s real struggle through the ages is ownership, and like it or not we are yours.

The widening gyre of this world finds solace here, out of the cradle endlessly rocking, and in that space at the center of every doomed life, awkward and unknowing, is the singular certainty of struggle and the shelter of your hands.”

Rose Metal Press makes beautiful books and this one by Robinson is no exception. It’s  a lovely convergence of history, ideas, imagery and statement.

A 1909 Merry Christmas from Kalem Studios, Jacksonville, Florida

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(Photo purchased from FL State Archives)

There’s much to love about this photo that looks like the aftermath of a terrific Christmas party at Kalem Studios. There’s the mix of people in costume, some still wearing film make-up, the gigantic  Christmas tree with haphazard garland and erratically placed ornaments, the wrapping paper strewn about, the guy in the third row with the striped sweater (is that a real black eye or a make-up black eye?). I was looking at this photo this morning and remembered reading a serialized article by Gene Gauntier, an actor, scenarist and director with Kalem Studios. The article called, “Blazing the Trail” was published in 1928 in Women’s Home Companion and over the course of six issues she recounts her days with Kalem Studios, including wonderful information about their time spent in Jacksonville making films. In the third article she reminisces about a particular Christmas and I’ve included her writing below. Learning about the history of film from books and documentaries written and directed by historians is invaluable, but I get a real thrill and a broader sense of the era when I come across first hand accounts such as these. Moments when the camera wasn’t rolling and we’re able to glimpse into the dailyness of cinematic pioneers. I’m not sure if Gene Gauntier is in this photo (although there’s a woman in the front row who could be her) and this may not be from the same Christmas party she references. Regardless, it’s a lovely little glimpse into a Florida Christmas past with a group of actors, technicians, directors and other workers. All away from their homes for the holidays, all of them a part of something new and exciting. Here’s the excerpt:

“We had our first company Christmas tree this year, cut by the boys and brought, together with a boatload of holly and mistletoe, from far up Strawberry Creek. The diary again records:

Friday, December 24: at nine o’clock we all assembled, first listening to a little concert by Sid’s phonograph, a baby one he bought this evening for two dollars and seventy-five cents, but it is fine. Flashlights were taken of the crowd surrounded by presents, which numbered one hundred and sixty-two, and were distributed amid laughter and shouts and thank-you’s. Afterward the boys got out their music and we had a serenade that would have put ‘dot leetle German band to shame. Did a lockstep to the pier, got in the Bess and went for a ride on the still river under a great golden moon.

Our friends the Hemmenways, who owned Oak Hall, an orange grove across the river at Floral Bluff, and were wintering in New York, had turned their lovely home over to us for our Christmas celebration. Mrs. Melford volunteered to cook the dinner, so my diary reports:

December 25: A bright day, but blowing terribly. Had to split up the party going across the river. Arrived at Hemmenway’s place at two-thirty. Mrs. Melford had been busy for two days. The table looked charming and the dinner was delicious. After dinner we had a jolly time playing children’s games– ‘Drop the handkerchief,’ ‘Clap in and clap out’ and so forth.” 

I don’t think we’ll be playing the same games in my house, but I do get to look over that same river from my backyard that Gene Gauntier crossed in their beloved listing boat, The Bess. I’m glad she took the time to recount the details and published them. I’m glad this photograph exists.

 

When Hart Crane Met Charlie Chaplin

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During the research and writing of Becoming Lyla Dore, I grew interested in not only silent film and how the subject would translate into poetry, but also in the very real ways poetry and silent film intersected, both directly and indirectly. I was already aware of Hart Crane’s well-known poem, “Chaplinesque,” and how it was inspired by his viewing of Chaplin’s The Kid in the fall of 1921. The poem, as Samuel Hazo pointed out in Hart Crane: An Introduction and Interpretation (1963), is an elegy “toward a human type or human propensity rather than toward a particular person…” I agree with this interpretation and also understand why many of Crane’s contemporaries found the poem difficult. Crane wrote the poem in a mode that might be considered implicit, rather than explicit, challenging the expectations of most of the readers at that time.

Chaplinesque
by Hart Crane

We make our meek adjustments,
Contented with such random consolations
As the wind deposits
In slithered and too ample pockets.

For we can still love the world, who find
A famished kitten on the step, and know
Recesses for it from the fury of the street,
Or warm torn elbow coverts.

We will sidestep, and to the final smirk
Dally the doom of that inevitable thumb
That slowly chafes its puckered index toward us,
Facing the dull squint with what innocence
And what surprise!

And yet these fine collapses are not lies
More than the pirouettes of any pliant cane;
Our obsequies are, in a way, no enterprise.
We can evade you, and all else but the heart:
What blame to us if the heart live on.

The game enforces smirks; but we have seen
The moon in lonely alleys make
A grail of laughter of an empty ash can,
And through all sound of gaiety and quest
Have heard a kitten in the wilderness.

Of course, that there was a poet of the age writing about silent film pleases me to no end. But when I came across The Letters of Hart Crane 1916-1932, edited by Brom Weber and discovered that Crane had the opportunity to spend an evening with Chaplin two years after writing the poem, it gave me a genuine thrill. Of the sort that only comes when one discovers something “on their own,” not through a conversation or a google search. That the thrill was disproportionate to the moment, I won’t argue, but I am someone who is often too easily pleased. However, here is what delighted me so. In October of 1923, Hart Crane wrote a letter to his mother in which he details at length his meeting with Chaplin, a meeting that was brought about by his friend and fellow writer, Waldo Frank (the associate editor of a short-lived, but influential journal, The Seven Arts  who also published in The New Yorker and The New Republic). Here’s the letter:

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What I find so interesting is to have Crane’s firsthand account of the evening— the sort of intimate divulgence that can only come from a letter written to someone Crane was close to. (The relationship with his mother– Grace, dear! a complicated one to be sure.) And that the letter was written the day after the experience, gives it that giddy immediacy that comes through the details of the evening and Crane’s emotional response to them. A fanboy’s dream come true— over the evening and morning, Crane is privy to Chaplin’s future project, A Woman of Paris, tidbits about Chaplin’s ended romance with Pola Negri, as well as Chaplin’s “hopes and spiritual desires!” That Crane is beside himself is almost understatement. And although there are plans to meet again later in the week it never comes about due to Chaplin being “…under the weather up at the Ritz…” That is not, however, the last encounter Crane has with Chaplin.

Some five years later when Hart Crane is spending time in Hollywood, he again crosses paths with Chaplin at a restaurant . He recounts the moment in a letter to Waldo Frank. The paragraph begins, “I meant long ago to tell you my rather disappointing experience with Charlie.:

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It’s difficult to read that letter without feeling the same pang of dispiritedness that Crane expressed. How easily Crane must have recalled, upon running into his idol, that memory of an evening well-spent. An evening that almost certainly registered with far greater significance than it did for Chaplin, which is evidenced by Chaplin’s response to him. Still, Crane is gracious, pointing out Chaplin’s handsomeness, “those same eyes of genius.” I can almost picture Crane walking away from that table, figuratively wearing the baggy clothes, bowler and cane, twitching a caterpillar mustache. I see him,  making his “meek adjustments,” contenting himself “with such random consolations.”

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Lillian Gish is Cooler Than You Think



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Lillian Gish isn’t perceived as cool. She probably never was. Not a free-spirit like Louise Brooks, certainly never the “It” girl like Clara Bow and lacking the obvious glamour of Gloria Swanson, her life was never lived as a fabulous spectacle for public consumption. Gish, nonetheless, had staying power. There wasn’t anything particularly stylish about her then or now and I suspect there are personal reasons I feel an affinity for her and see an edge where others might not seeing anything beyond that expressive, ethereal face.

From an early age it was clear to me I was never going to be singled out for my “coolness” either. That is unless freckles and buck teeth would have been a “thing” in the 1970’s. But there’s power in understanding that about yourself early, I think. It allows you to get on with the business of being yourself. It allows you to love things like poetry and show tunes openly, bring mayonnaise on saltine crackers in your school lunch and to wear clothes that others may consider “risky” and not in an ironic or good way. It’s never really bothered me much that I wasn’t cool. It didn’t prevent me from making friends or from learning new things. Instead of this knowledge making me feel overly self-conscious, it often made me feel liberated.

Watching Lillian Gish in her silent era films, one would not consider her liberated at all. In just about every one of these she plays a tragic heroine in one form or another— from her first film, directed by D.W. Griffith, called An Unseen Enemy, in which she and her sister, Dorothy, play victims almost comically trapped in a room by thieves— to her last, Victor Seastrom’s, The Wind, in which Gish plays a woman whose fate, at least up until the end, is guided by the decisions of those around her. With the exception of her later years, she mostly played the role of a delicate women (being physically delicate herself), with doll-like features whose virtue was often at risk or was taken deceptively by a man. She was so often abused in films, that a movie magazine writer of the time suggested a “Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Lillian Gish” should be organized.

Still, despite her frailty, there was an odd strength to her characters— an ability to struggle on despite the hardships, the pain or tragic losses, even if it meant only struggling towards death. Sentimentality abounds in the work, but where some may see many of these films as only antiquated melodramas, I see films whose stories are grounded in a particular time and place and whose interpretations also reveal something about their own time and place. What is depicted is, at intervals, uncomfortable to watch. Moments of racial and gender stereotyping that reveal at once how much progress has been made and how very little progress has been made.

But to think of Lillian Gish as someone who was merely anachronistic in her thinking and living does a disservice to a woman who was more complex than that and who lived life on her own terms— at least to the extent a working film actress of the time could. And while her biography is not without its own difficulties for me— her politics and mine are worlds apart, her unequivocal defense of D.W. Griffith despite his shortcomings— there are things I find to admire about Lillian Gish even today:

1. She was aware of her talent and the limitation of that talent as evidenced by these quotes:

I’m as funny as a barrel of dead babies. (When asked why she didn’t do comedies…)

Fans always write asking why I didn’t smile more in films. I smiled in ‘Annie Laurie’, but I can’t recall that it helped much.

and

Those little virgins, after five minutes you got sick of playing them— to make them more interesting was hard work.
2. She had relationships with men, but never married, never had children. She chose a career over family at a time when it was unconventional to do so. It wasn’t without difficulty— even now there are those who look at this decision as suspect despite her many achievements.

3. She understood the challenges and unfairness women faced in Hollywood as they aged when she wryly noted decades and decades before Amy Schumer’s wonderful clip— “Last F**kable Day”: You know, when I first went into the movies Lionel Barrymore played my grandfather. Later he played my father and finally he played my husband. If he had lived I’m sure I would have played his mother. That’s the way it is in Hollywood. The men get younger and the women get older.

4. She said other lovely things about life and curiosity and learning and believing. You can look them up. But here’s one of the quotes I will always love best, perhaps because it shows a level of self-knowledge that most celebrities are not capable of: I’ve never been in style, so I can’t go out of style.

Lillian Gish remarking on her lack of coolness in this way, makes her seem even more so to me. But then again, what could I possibly know about that.

 

Cecil B DeMille Thinks Your Bathroom Needs a Makeover

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I’ll bet you enjoyed your bath this morning! Maids discreetly holding your elaborate robe up as a curtain behind you while, like a temple goddess, you slipped into the perfectly heated water of your sunken tub. Oh. Not a bath person, you say? Well, then, surely you delighted in that separate nozzle in your shower? (No, not that one). The one through which rosewater comes pouring out, coating your skin in liquid petals. What? Your bathroom doesn’t have either of those things? Well, that’s a damn shame. And it isn’t just me who thinks so, but Cecil B. DeMille does too! He believes in the art of bathing so fervently, he interrupted the narrative pace of his film, Male and Female, to bring you this public service announcement starring Gloria Swanson and featuring Bebe Daniels:

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Well, at least it felt like a commercial. I admit, I love watching DeMille’s over-the-top “modern” morality stories. Especially as a contrast with Griffith’s films of the same period and their insistence of pure-hearted heroines and virtuous ideals. When Carl H. Pierce of Famous Players-Lasky Studios suggested to DeMille that he put his efforts toward films featuring, “…plenty of clothes, rich sets and action,” DeMille not only delivered by making pictures that filled theater seats,he changed contemporary culture by giving the public what they didn’t even yet know they wanted.

DeMille redefined for audiences not only what it meant to be a modern husband and wife, he redefined their (and by extension, our) living spaces. No longer the prim, nurturing holdover from Victorian times, the modern wife was glamorous, knew how to be her husband’s playmate as well as his wife or suffered the consequences of losing him to a more worldly woman. Men too, were shown that their slovenly ways had no place in his ideal. In DeMille’s world, home interiors were no longer fussy, but lavish in their attention to detail. Nothing illustrates this point as much as his insistence on making the bathroom a central part of the films he was making during this period and his insistence that filmgoers rethink their views on this room in their own homes.

In the first of these films, Old Wives for New (1918), there is a scene early on that takes place in a bathroom. No big deal to you or me today. However, DeMille was breaking new ground. Because, after all, the bathroom is a space in which we take care of those necessary, but indelicate, functions. It’s also where we clean our bodies and essentially are our least “presentable.” None of this, it was believed, had a place on film. Up until this time, even for the wealthy, bathrooms were considered utilitarian and were not spaces that one spent much time decorating. DeMille’s vision took hold of the cultural imagination and changed the way we think about that space and its purpose in our home. But bathrooms served another purpose for DeMille. He felt it was also the prefect place to show the discord in a relationship For example, in Old Wives for New, the messy bathroom is used to reveal the wife’s character. She’s gotten lazy in her care of the home and herself as evidenced by the hair left in the sink and the comb, the toiletry bottles strewn about. DeMille would continue to make bathrooms important in other films of this type— Why Change Your Wife (1920),  the previously mentioned, Male and Female (1919) and The Affairs of Anatol (1921) As his granddaughter, Cecilia DeMille Presley put it, “DeMille made the bathroom an ideal. He showed America how a room that had been overlooked could be transformed into something special, with beautiful mirrors, soaps, marble, and even perfumed water. He used the bathroom as a metaphor for the state of the marriage.”

But not everyone found his attention to the bathroom to be so necessary. A writer in Filmplay Journal had this to say: “We really do not understand why Mr. DeMille wastes his talents as a motion picture director when a bathroom fixture company could engage him as an Extraordinary Advisor.” Boo to the naysayers! Next time you light that scented candle next to your bathtub, before you reach for that sugar scrub or wrap yourself in one of those Egyptian cotton bath towels you paid too much for, make sure you give a little nod to Cecil B. DeMille, the man who thought you were worth all of this special attention.

Cecil B. DeMille: The Art of the Hollywood Epic by Cecilia DeMille Presley and Mark A. Vieira– a beautiful book, provided some details for this post.

From Austerity to Opulence: Setting in Silent Film

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Unknown. Filmed in Florida

One of the first things a student learns in a beginning creative writing class is that setting matters. Novels, stories, creative non-fiction and certain types of poems, all happen somewhere. In that lesson we also learn that the setting has to feel real, even if it’s a completely made up world, that it can be in harmony with the characters/speaker or that it can be in conflict with them. We learn that we can’t put our characters or speakers in a setting that is akin to a stage. If we really want to submerge a reader into a world we’re creating, if we really want them to suspend their disbelief, we need to provide a place in which characters can live. A setting that is more than backdrop.

It makes sense, of course, that the earliest days of silent film would feel more like an extension of theater than anything else. Cameras were mostly stationary, and moving camera shots involved planning and time, both which cost money. And just as it was believed film edits might prove perplexing to audiences, it was also believed that moving camera shots might have the same effect. To that end, film sets sometimes looked like the above photograph. An outdoor stage, three walls, no ceiling (because sunlight, of course, was a necessity before indoor film lighting was invented.) In many of these films it feels, even if the set is well constructed, that what’s in the scene is intended mostly to further the action or to establish locale. The acting was center stage (literally and figuratively) and overdone. Place a camera, get a medium shot of the whole set and you’ve got a vantage point as though you’re sitting in a theater watching a play.

Additionally, there was little thought given at that time as to what might be put into the setting. For instance, if the scene was taking place in a wealthy person’s home, the impulse would be to just add more “stuff” to the scene— more paintings, more knick-knacks, more furniture. It was as though characters were little more than “types” and the psychology of the character or the development of the setting was of far less consideration than the action. It was a new medium, of course, an industry that was creating itself as it went along. As directors and cameramen became more interested in pushing the boundaries of what film could accomplish, how stories might be told through this visual medium, attention to what elements went in to a shot, how it might be filmed, under what sort of lighting or tinting, etc., became considerations of importance. All of it contributing to the layering of story, to the effect on the audience, even if the audience wasn’t fully aware of it.

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An Unseen Enemy

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Intolerance

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And it didn’t take long for these significant changes to occur. Consider the D.W. Griffith short, An Unseen Enemy (featuring Lillian and Dorothy Gish in their first screen appearance), released in 1912. For the most part, the movie takes place in a house, a cornfield, an office and a bridge. Watch it and you can see how of little importance setting is. (Except perhaps, the bridge scene.) Compare that with his three and a half hour film, Intolerance, which was released only four years later. The iconic Babylonian scenes boast a set that was 3/8 of a mile long with walls that were 140 feet high and were constructed to hold hundreds of extras for the magnificent battle scenes. Griffith didn’t want to just have a facsimile of Babylon, he sought to recreate it down to as much detail as possible, as indicated by the scrapbook he kept to guide the set design. Costumes, weapons, set interiors were all created with attention to the smallest detail for each of the four periods depicted in the film. Of course this comparison is an oversimplification. There were other reasons sets became more detailed, more lavish, beyond a deeper understanding of the relationship between narrative and film. As films became more popular with all social classes and audiences became more accustomed to this medium, they also became more demanding and more discriminating in their expectations. More films were being made with high production value because there was more money being made in the industry. In fact, studios found they could use the cost of a film’s production as a selling point, as with Erich Von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives (1922).

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Foolish Wives

Perhaps it’s not surprising that Erich Von Stroheim, who was an assistant director on Intolerance and also an uncredited actor in the film, would go on to become an extravagant director himself, who’s insistence on detail matched, if not surpassed Griffith’s. In Foolish Wives, for example, he insisted that the set be exact replications of The Casino, Hotel and and Cafe de Paris in Monte Carlo. The film was intended by Von Stroheim to be between six and ten hours long and shown over two nights. The studio disagreed with his artistic vision and edited it to just over two hours. Additionally, when all was said and done, the film was close to one million dollars over budget, allowing Universal Studios to publicize it as “the first real million dollar picture”. That wasn’t a publicity campaign studios were interested in committing to, however. Because of directors like Stroheim (and Griffith), studios eventually came up with the idea of creating an executive to oversee the various aspects of shooting a film. From that point forward, the producer would soon overshadow most directors in terms of power in filmmaking.

Money and power aside, settings, through the artistry and inventiveness of silent film era directors and production designers, evolved to a place where no one could suggest that there wasn’t a striving toward authenticity in creating a world within the world for characters to live out their own scripted destinies. A world that grounds us and transports us all at once.

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