An Interview with W. Dustin Alligood of Harpodeon.com

fatty
The Rounders (1914)

W. Dustin Alligood runs Harpodeon, a treasure trove of early film (think pre-1920s) available for DVD purchase, digital download, or digital rental. He also posts silent film reviews at http://thoseawfulreviews.wordpress.com. Don’t pay any attention to the domain name, his writings are anything but awful and he’s extraordinarily knowledgable, so I asked him some questions about the state of film preservation, the appeal of silent cinema, and the allure of the forgotten.

To begin with, give us a quick biography. 

A biography? Oh, you don’t want my biography—I’m a dreadfully dull person. I’m from western Maine. I’m 30 years old. My love for silent film seems like it’s always been a part of me—I can hardly remember a time when that wasn’t the case. I’ve collected film, in a serious way, for around 15 years. 6 or 7 years ago, I tried my hand at scoring silent films and I didn’t think I was too bad at it. I started Harpodeon about 5 years ago, sourcing videos from films drawn from the collection and scoring them myself. I named it “Harpodeon” because one of my other hobbies is Greek antiquities and I have a small collection of votive objects from the cult of Harpocrates, the Greco-Egyptian god of silence. Harpocrates is usually depicted as a boy with a side ponytail and a finger pressed to his lips. A couple thousand years ago, the little guy whose place is now in the Harpodeon logo would have graced some not particularly wealthy devotee’s house shrine in Alexandria, Egypt.

What draws you to early film? What are some of your favorites?

I can’t be sure what the first one I saw was—it might have been Spite Marriage (1929)—but I can say that The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) was the first I fell in love with. It’s dramatic and emotive, and like all silent films, it’s engaging. I’m never disinterested when watching a silent, even if I don’t particularly care for the story.

The silent era was not monolithic and can be divided into several periods, albeit with fierce disagreement on where exactly those divisions should be made. I would wager most silent fans prefer the late period, the so-called golden age just before the transition to sound, but I have to say I’m fascinated more by the earlier years, when film grammar was still evolving and all movies had an air of experimentalism about them.

Some say silent film is an incomplete art, that it was waiting for sound, others, like Hitchcock, felt that it was a richer art-form than sound film. Where do you stand on the difference, if any, between the two mediums?

It’s been said that modern audiences tend to see silents as talkies minus sound and so take away that they’re lacking something, rather than viewing them in the more positive terms of pictures plus motion. I think that’s an oversimplification, but one’s perspective certainly has something to do with it.

I may not be the best person to answer this question since, for almost all my life, I’ve been immersed in the silent world and have had, comparatively speaking, little exposure to the talking one, but in my mind, the difference is so great between silent and sound film that it makes it almost impossible to speak of them in the same breath.

There’s a musicality to silent film—there’s a rhythm in the acting and the editing, there’s a key in the composition, there’s a dynamic in the structure—and even if you’re watching without any accompaniment at all, you can feel and almost hear the music just from the picture alone. That was lost, I think, with the transition to sound. Closely related to that, there’s an unreality to silent film, the same unreality inherit in opera or ballet. As media, they all mean to express emotion and they mean not just to show it to the viewer, but to elicit it from the viewer. Silent film demands attention, and because it’s so removed from real life, the viewer is forced to take an active part to fill in the gaps. Reality gets in the way of that—it leaves no space for the viewer. Modern films, in their striving to be more real, seem to me a much more passive form of entertainment.

I agree about the air of experimentalism to the era—there was a wealth of untrodden ground when the film grammar wasn’t established. In the past I’ve characterized early cinema as “all the alternate paths the medium could’ve taken.” Do you agree? Are there any alternate paths, any experiments, that particularly catch your eye?

That’s a good way to put it.

The earliest narrative films were mostly filmed plays—a static, unbroken, medium-long shot of a stage with a flat-panel backdrop. It gets interesting when filmmakers started trying things that weren’t possible in stage plays. The obvious example would be concurrency. Before the cross-cut was established, you had techniques like the split screen, which still sees limited use today; or playing a scene from beginning to end, then returning to the start and re-playing it in its entirety focused on a different character, a technique that’s hardly ever done anymore.

All of those early methods were borne out of a great concern that the audience would be lost if an action was ever cut away from, or cut to already in progress—which, of course, never happened on stage. You see that concern slowly melt away over time and a standard form develops, but even in the later years, filmmakers were still trying new things.

One interesting example that, speaking of stage plays, comes to mind, is the 1921 version of Black Beauty. It’s an adaptation that borrows only the title and a few character names from the book;  the story is about a woman being coerced into marriage by a blackmailer. As the blackmailer gains his power over the woman in the first two acts, the way the film is shot is stagey in an almost literal sense—complete with a curtain that opens and closes on scenes. It gives it a claustrophobic feeling and the unmoving camera of the fourth wall seems inescapable. Then in the third act, as his plot begins to unravel, we break from the stage with long tracking shots over an expansive outdoor space and rapid cutting between characters. It’s as if cinema itself comes to the rescue.

But in terms of actual film grammar and the path it’s taken, I think it’s interesting to think about what’s been dropped over the years. Irises, vignettes, mattes, and axial cuts were all well established by 1914, but have largely left the grammar today. What did fall out of use but has seen a resurgence in recent years is using tinting to indicate something aside from color. A green tint could suggest an ethereal or dream-like situation in the silent era and it might suggest the same thing now. One wonders whether anything else might be similarly brought back some day.

(And by mattes not being around anymore, I mean in shapes other than binoculars. That one’s still in use. And to be perfectly fair, today’s introspective slow dolly in is just an axial cut minus the cut.)

In general there seems to be a constant focus on “special interest” films on Harpodeon—lots of women’s films, for example. Do you see a big difference in the way those films were made and released then as opposed to now?

That presupposes I’m more than casually familiar with how films are made and released nowadays, which might not be a smart assumption.

The early film industry was a strange and secretive beast. There’s a paucity of records regarding what influenced a studio to make this or that kind of film and very little information to go on as to how any particular film’s success or failure affected the production of future films. Such decisions were the domain of studio owners and tended not to get written down. There are a great number of external factors influencing movies in the 1910s—the women’s suffrage movement, the temperance movement, the nativism movement, etc.—all of them either pandered to or demonized, as the tides turned. The names have changed, but I don’t suppose it’s all that different today. I think the most significant difference would be the sheer number of films produced then as opposed to now. When you’re releasing a new film every week, you can afford to be unconventional and risk courting less certain demographics.

That said, while they might not have been “prestige” titles, women’s films, along with comedies and westerns, were pretty safe bets—the latter being popular with kids and the former with their mothers, who together made up the bulk of movie-goers in that era.

You’ve been working on a really interesting series about gay films of early cinema. Can you tell us about what you’ve learned and observed from that?

Before I answer that, let me recall an event that happened last year after a live screening of a Buster Keaton comedy—I think it was Three Ages (1923). After the show, one person in the audience, who I had seen before at another screening and was vaguely acquainted with, sincerely wondered whether they ever made any dramas in the silent era. My point is, without ever being exposed to anything to the contrary, people can get a skewed impression of what movies were like before their time.

People think of gay films as a modern invention and I confess I once thought so myself, for much the same reason the guy I mentioned above believed all silent films were comedies—I had never seen anything to contradict the notion. Over the years, I have been disabused of that notion, and others. For everything thought of as taboo-breaking today, I doubt you’d have much trouble finding examples of it in the past if you look off the beaten track.

Your comment about “releasing a film a week” throws into relief how much of early cinema is gone forever—conservative estimates say at least 80% of silent films no longer have any surviving prints. Why did the films that did survive, make it?

Something that’s easy to forget in the home video era of today is that film was once seen as a transitory and disposable commodity. The old saying goes that a film that has passed its initial run is as worthless as yesterday’s newspaper. There wasn’t a great deal of care taken to preserve them. Sometimes they were even intentionally destroyed as publicity stunts—to assure audiences a steady stream of new releases each week. After the transition to sound, studios saw even less use in their silent catalogues and largely allowed them to rot away.

Up until the 1950s, movies were almost universally shot on nitrate film. Nitrate is explosively flammable—chemically, its the same thing as guncotton. If kept in good condition and properly stored, nitrate is relatively stable and long-lived, but it decomposes rapidly once it begins to break down, and the gasses it releases act to hasten the decomposition of all the film it’s stored near. Nitrate fires in studio archives account for the majority of lost films today. ‘Safety’, or non-flammable, film of the era has its own problems, and in my experience at least, has a much shorter and less predictable lifespan than nitrate.

It also has to be remembered that film distribution in those days did not work as it does today. Internegatives did not exist; release prints were all struck directly from the camera negative, which put a hard limit on how many could be made before wearing the negative out. It would have been impossible to release a film to all the thousands of cinemas in the country simultaneously—there simply weren’t enough prints to go around. The same few dozen prints would premiere in major cities, then would work their way outward to smaller cities and towns, then into the countryside, before reaching the end of the road in far-flung places like Alaska. By that time, several months or even years had passed and the studio had little care what became of the prints at that point. A lot of silent films today owe their survival to lazy end-of-the-road exhibitors who never got around to returning them to the distributor. I have more than one movie in my collection that was still sitting in its shipping crate when I acquired it.

So, my answer would be chance. Most silent films that survive today, survived by chance.

Where are your films sourced from?

Physically, you mean? With few exceptions, from my own film collection. It started with an 8mm print of The Rounders (1914) that I picked up from an antique shop when I was eight or nine years old, but the collection didn’t take off until a little more than fifteen years ago, when I discovered a fascinating new website called eBay. I won’t even hazard a guess at how many reels I have now. Several hundred, surely. I buy all gauges—8mm, Super 8mm, 9.5mm, 16mm, 17.5mm, 28mm, 35mm, both safety and nitrate—but the bulk of the collection is 16mm. I personally gravitate toward films made during what I think of as the “formative years”, between, say, 1912 and 1918, but the collection is certainly not exclusive to that period.

The Rounders is a hell of a lot of fun. What do you imagine would be the state of silent comedy if Fatty Arbuckle hadn’t been arrested?

Well, his influence never really ended. He was too well-connected in the industry to just be kicked to the curb. He moved into writing and directing, under the name William Goodrich, and was active right up to his death.

In my opinion, though, “fat guy” comedy was about played out by 1921. The other Fattyesque actors, like Hughie Mack, were either washed up or close to it by the ’20s. They were all riding in the wake of John Bunny, who died unexpectedly in 1915 and whose memory was beginning to fade in the public’s consciousness. Arbuckle had the screen presence and charisma the other imitators lacked, it must be said, but I doubt he would have been able to keep making the same sort of comedies he made in the 1910s much longer.

What was the availability of these titles before the Internet?

That’s an interesting question, and the answer to it depends on what you mean by “availability”. Some films are much easier to find now than they were twenty years ago—a visit to YouTube will get you almost all of the shorts Griffith directed at Biograph, for example—but I’m honestly not sure if, ease of locating them aside, the number of silent films available on video has greatly increased over the years. Internet or no, the limiting factor is money. Acquiring, preserving, transferring, and scoring a film is expensive, and outside of the heavy-hitters—titles instantly recognizable even to those unfamiliar with silents, like Nosferatu (1922), The Phantom of the Opera (1925), or Metropolis (1927)—the audience is so tiny that there’s simply no profit to be made. When your potential customer pool is maybe 5000 people worldwide, it’s no wonder that major distributors, on the whole, are so slow to do anything with their silents.

On the other side of the aisle, the Internet has been a double-edged sword for the small-timers—for whom releasing videos is more a labor of love than a tenable business model. They may be free from the demands of turning a profit, but the expenses are no less real. In the past, mail-order VHS, and later, DVD-R sales, went a long way to offsetting those costs and allowing them to remain in business. The Internet has vastly increased the exposure of these small-time distributors, but also the ease with which people can turn around and upload their videos to YouTube, which seriously undermines their continued operation. Over the past half dozen years, I’ve been greatly disheartened to see these once great resources close up shop one by one. Each one lost slows the trickle of new silent films on video that much more.

There’s lots of discussion now about digital distribution, some say it’ll never truly take off, others that it’s already conquered traditional channels. What are your experiences like with it?

The latter, assuredly. Digital downloads have greatly surpassed DVD sales at Harpodeon for the previous two years. We won’t be abandoning DVDs anytime soon, but our focus has definitely shifted to digital distribution as the primary sales channel. I’m honestly surprised at how quick the change was. I remember, even as recently as five years ago, that there were still people grumbling about the transition from VHS to DVD. Why downloadable video was almost immediately embraced, despite it being a much more significant shift in media, is a mystery to me.

Your review process is simply I like it or I don’t—why is that?

Finely gradated ratings seem to me less concerned with the film at hand and more with trying to decide how it stacks against other films. I don’t think that’s fair in general, and I especially don’t think so in regard to early film. This was a time when a difference in country of origin, production company, or even a few years between release dates could mean that two films might be operating under entirely different grammars. How would you begin to compare them? I try to approach a film on its own terms, and my primary and sometimes only criterion for rating it is whether it succeeds at what it’s attempting to be. With that as the goal, I see no reason to over complicate things with a too fussy score.

Any Holy Grail titles you’re looking for?

Oh, many, but I’m sure I don’t know what their titles are. I love the forgotten, and especially with nitrate, there’s a good chance that every reel you pick up may be the only remaining copy of some minor film that probably ran for a week with little or no press, then was discarded on a shelf somewhere and left untouched for the better part of a century. I have material from many films so obscure that it’s impossible to find even a single mention of them in contemporary newspapers or magazines. It’s true, most turn out to be justly forgettable, but with some, you’re left to wonder how such a gem could have been overlooked.

In terms of known films that are presumed lost that I hope against hope I may one day stumble across, I could rattle off several titles, but War Brides (1916), the screen debut of Alla Nazimova, tops the list.

What do you recommend for people looking to get into this kind of collecting? Or, conversely, people who suspect they may have a rare print of something?

If you’re interested in film collecting, I would start with 8mm. There are lots of titles available, most are cheap, equipment is easy to find, and it doesn’t take up much space. You’ll learn how to handle film and how to care for it, and even if there are few rare titles on the gauge, 8mm still opens up whole worlds that aren’t available on video. From there, you might consider branching out into other gauges before plummeting headlong into the money pit that is 16mm.

If you’re cleaning out grandpa’s basement and find the workprint of Greed (1924), or more realistically, some no-name two reel comedy on nitrate, and want to see that it’s properly stored, the Library of Congress will take it, or UCLA, or I’m sure any other major archive. It’s likely that store it is all they’ll do, unless there’s funding to be found somewhere for duplicating it and making a viewing copy, but at least it has a better chance of survival in a climate controlled vault than it does in your backyard shed.

Before we go, what’s new at Harpodeon that viewers should look out for?

Over the coming weeks, the whole website is being re-built from the ground up. It was in desperate need of a revamping—it’s hardly changed since it went online five years ago. The overall design isn’t radically different, but the new website should be easier to use, especially on touch-screen devices. Depending on when this interview is posted, it might be live already.

In the long run, there’s the 100th anniversary edition of A Florida Enchantment (1914) coming out next year. New transfer, new software used to clean the picture, new score(s). It’s a great deal of work, but I’m excited about it. Personally, I’ve always preferred weepy melodrama to comedy, but as far as comedy goes, I don’t think a finer film was ever made. There may be one or two theatrical screenings in the works as well, depending on how things pan out schedule-wise.

The big project in the works at this moment is a photo-reconstruction of The Miracle Man (1919), the largely lost Lon Chaney drama. It will be our second reconstruction, following the success of last year’s The Juggernaut (1915). In one way, The Miracle Man will be more difficult—there was over a whole reel of surviving footage from The Juggernaut, whereas barely three minutes exist of The Miracle Man; but in another, it should be easier—the limited number of production stills taken during the filming of The Juggernaut made rebuilding the missing scenes problematic, but there’s quite a large pool of them to be drawn from for The Miracle Man.

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One Response to An Interview with W. Dustin Alligood of Harpodeon.com

  1. Danny says:

    It’s always so interesting getting to read and learn more about pre-Golden Age silents. Thanks for this interview and all that Harpodeon does!

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