There are only a few weeks left of the silent film series and I am definitely going to miss my Wednesday nights at the Stanford Theatre. This week, I’m going to start with the shorts that played after the intermission and then tell you about the feature film. This is closer to what we would have seen at the movies in the 1920s.
First, we had a newsreel featuring presidential inaugurations, starting with William McKinley. I am not the history maven that my mother is; the main thing I know about McKinley is that he was assassinated by Leon Czolgosz at The Pan-American Exposition in 1901. Why do I know this? Stephen Sondheim wrote a song about it for his brilliant musical, Assassins…and you don’t forget a name like Czolgosz when you’ve heard it sung! Thanks to Dennis James, I’ve added a new McKinley fact: his was the first presidential inauguration captured on film. If you know your presidents, you’ll know that after McKinley, we saw Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson, Warren G. Harding, and Calvin Coolidge. If you’re me, you had to look that up on Wikipedia.
Next, we had a comedy short from 1929 called Joy Tonic and starring Big Boy. Yes, Big Boy. He was a child star (real name Malcolm Sebastian) who was about six years old at the time of this film. At the beginning, he fills in for a clown to assist with a medicine show…so, of course, I was thinking of Sondheim again, remembering “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir” from Sweeney Todd (I have drunk all the Sondheim koolaid.). He sees a little girl about his age, played by Lorraine Rivero, and follows her home, which begins about ten minutes of non-stop physical comedy, including some special effects that I couldn’t figure out. Slapstick isn’t always my thing, but the kids were cute–lots of fun.
The last short film was an Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon, Sick Cylinders. Oswald was created by Walt Disney and you can really see the beginnings of Mickey Mouse when you look at him. Oswald picks up his girlfriend, a cat in a skirt, for a date. His car breaks down as soon as they try to hit the road and he spends the next five minutes trying to fix it. You can see this film on YouTube, but unfortunately, the video doesn’t include Dennis James and The Mighty Wurlitzer.
The feature film this week, Eve’s Leaves, from 1926. Starring Leatrice Joy as Eve, the film was full of fisticuffs, punny title cards, and a few cringeworthy, pre-PC moments. Eve is a young woman who lives on her father’s ship with a bunch of sailors. Her father, Captain Macey, has raised her as a boy: she dresses like a boy and has no knowledge of romantic male/female relationships. When she starts asking the ship’s cook about love, the information he gives her is based on the swoony romance novels he reads. He also gives her a “Love Almanac”, which includes helpful advice about choosing a mate using eugenics (yikes!).
When Eve and her father go ashore in Sub Gum, China, she sees a handsome young man, Bill Stanley (played by William Boyd, best known for playing Hopalong Cassidy) and will not be deterred from pursuing him. They both find themselves on the run, with Bill playing the typical damsel in distress role. One of the most interesting sequences in the film occurs when Eve decides to attract Bill, who couldn’t be less interested, by dressing as “sex appeal”. If Eve displayed extreme awkwardness in her boy drag, she’s completely ridiculous dolled up in beads and curtains she tries to make into a glamorous outfit. Bill ends up being more attracted to Eve when she’s in her comfort zone, dressed as a boy.
I recently read In One Person by John Irving, in which the bisexual protagonist is primarily attracted to boyish women and transwomen, and I couldn’t help thinking about the book as I was watching Eve’s Leaves. I think we have the impression that it’s only now that we see these kinds of gender issues in media, but there’s nothing new under the sun. This silent series, as well as some pre-code films that were recently broadcast on TCM, have given me lots of food for thought when it comes to gender roles, beauty standards, and LGBT visibility. Maybe we’re just getting better at understanding and accepting that there is really no such thing as normal.