Whatever your opinion of silent film is, if you haven’t seen these three items, you’re in for a treat.
- The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916): Douglas Fairbanks stars in this ridiculous Sherlock Holmes parody as “Coke Ennyday – the world’s greatest scientific detective.” He takes drugs constantly, wears a harness full of syringes, and incapacitates a gang by blowing cocaine in their faces. The terrific soundtrack is made up of old-fashioned drug-related songs, like “Who put the Benzadrine in Mrs. Murphy’s Ovaltine?” One scene turns a film cliché on its ear; a villain advances menacingly toward the cowering heroine… who suddenly jumps up and beats the crap out of him. Go girl!
- Max Fleischer’s Ko-Ko the Clown Cartoons (1927 – 1929): You’ll have to provide your own music while enjoying these 10 delightfully daffy cartoons; the tape is completely silent. Using a mix of animation and live action, Max Fleischer interacts with his cartoon creations; sending them off on errands, drawing tools and vehicles for them, and arguing with them. Ko-Ko the clown remained popular well into the 1930s, becoming a companion to Fleischer’s more famous character, Betty Boop. Unfortunately, this tape omits my favorite silent Ko-Ko short, “Ko-Ko’s Earth Control”; look for that one on a tape called Cartoon Madness! The Fantastic Max Fleischer Cartoons (1991) hosted by Leonard Maltin. (Or just watch it here.)
- Witchcraft Through the Ages (aka Haxan) (1922): This astonishing Swedish film depicts devils, curses, possessions, satanic rituals, flying covens and an entire convent going bonkers. There are several storylines; the most memorable ones show the witch hunts of the 15th and 16th centuries. Innocent people are coerced into confessing to witchcraft by ignorant, frightened and malicious persecutors. The film vividly conveys the atmosphere of irrational hysteria that these superstitious witch-burners lived in and perpetuated. Unforgettable.
This column first appeared in FFWD Weekly in 1997.