pickford_06 Silent film The Artist has been a surprise box office hit this month, introducing a whole new generation of cinema goers to silent films QueensOfVintage.com has met up with silent film enthusiast Hala Pickford whose mission it is to introduce a new generation to silent film and its stars. Here, Hala tells us how she got into silent film, what makes the era so special, and which films are a must to watch.

QoV: How did your fascination with silent films and actress Mary Pickford (pictured left) start?

Hala Pickford: I think before I begin I should obviously state I am a charlatan Pickford (makes being introduced at Pickford Institute events terribly awkward)!

I was an odd child, I really loved history.  I have no clue where or when the thought entered my head but I always wanted to see a silent film.  I’m no film buff by any means.  My parents weren’t big on movies so as a child I was mostly limited to Disney films.  I’ve never seen Star Wars!  Once I hit 1930 I kinda start to draw blanks…

In 2005 Beyond the Rocks was rediscovered and so I made it on the last day for the last screening.  I remember thinking, “I don’t know who this Valentino is but its a shame he’s dead!”  About the same time I was losing hope in pursuing a music career and searched for some new women mogul inspiration.  In doing so I found Mary and instantly read one of the best bios on her, Eileen Whitfield’s “Pickford: The Woman who made Hollywood”.  I wouldn’t see a film of hers until three years later when I moved to Hollywood, but God I do love her whole thing be it icon to acting.  Mary was a genius!

As for the name I took it when I made a switch from music to acting.  Pickford sounded better.  Besides I thought it’d be a nice tribute.  Unfortunately I started up with my silent fim website Forget the Talkies about a month later and confusion has ensued ever since.


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image: Andrew Kasiske of AKA Photo/Graphics LLC

citylightsQoV: What makes the silent film era so special?

Hala Pickford (pictured right): It was so wonderful!  Like everything else in life not all silent films (or actors for that matter) were good – a sheer amount of crap was produced, and some of it is still around.  But when they were good oh they were good. Think in 2009 you might declare Avatar a masterpiece, while rolling your eyes at Bride Wars. For every God awful Nazimova film or overplayed melodrama the silents still gave us films like City Lights or The Big Parade.

I think what makes it especially special is the fact it’s o hidden, so forgotten.  Imagine if we forgot the Fifties: kids wouldn’t  know who Marilyn Monroe, Elvis, or Audrey Hepburn were and that would be a shame.  But that era is still close to us so the little black dress and Monroe-cut live on.  Film was the literal start of pop culture as we know it, and to forget the flappers (and even more so the vamps and baby vamps) and their impact is just a shame.

The general consensus is some 70% to 90% of silent films are lost- that makes the ones we still have all the more precious.  They’re lost not because they were bad, but because we forgot them when talkies came along.  Just like people ‘forget’ black and white films now.

The passion, the wonder, the beauty!  People think of silents today as a creaky Keystone Kops comedy run at the wrong speed in silence.  They really believe that people just sat there in silence watching these poorly made films and being wholly entertained. No! A good score, the right speed, and a solid print will blow Avatar right out of the water.

I like to get into my movies, be they modern or silent.  You’ll laugh just as well as someone from the Twenties at a Chaplin feature, and you’ll gasp at the brutality of  The Big Parade, or the sheer sexiness of Son of the Sheik.  Silents are just as wonderful as they ever were.  Its a shame more people don’t realize what their missing out on.

goldrushQoV: What are the top five silent films everyone should watch?

For anyone new to silents I’d recommend the following:

1) Any Chaplin feature (particularly Modern Times, City Lights, The Circus, The Gold Rush)
I’m a devout Chaplinite meaning Charlie Chaplin is my religion, lord and savior.  His films are so timeless, fresh, and modern.  This is a man who made fun of commies in the McCarthy era!  He truly is just magical.  I find newbies really enjoy his films, though some are turned off by how naughty his tramp can be (in the Keystone days he was a downright brat!).

If Charlie isn’t your cup of tea Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd will do.  I dare anyone to watch the party scene in The Gold Rush or the ending of City Lights and not feel fully touched.

2) Son of the Sheik
This is a really wonderful silent film, a good showcase of why silent films are so wonderful and enjoyable.  Rudolph Valentino is sexy as hell in it (and it is perhaps one of his best films, his acting is wonderful), but his costars Vilma Banky and Karl Dane make it really enjoyable.  I adore Karl!  He steals every scene he’s in.

3) The Big Parade

This is one of those ‘not yet on freakin DVD’ that need to be.  It’s one of the most epic films of the silent era and if we had not so cruelly forgotten silents it would still be a classic today.  In fact like City Lights it might seem a bit too familiar because every film since has stolen from it.  The ending is just shocking.  Oh and you get to see Karl Dane’s butt.  I swear I didn’t put it on the list for that!

4) My Best Girl/Girl Shy

Okay I’m cheating ain’t I?  For some reason I associate these two films as they seem similar to me in ways I can’t describe other than ‘wonderful romantic comedy’ (and I hate romantic comedies!).  This is the stuff that makes Bride Wars look like tripe.  My Best Girl is Mary Pickford’s last silent, and absolutely adorable.  Mary was very good at comedy, something people don’t remember her for these days. Harold Lloyd’s Girl Shy is a different strain of romance, but also very cute.  Very stupid ending, but right up to that it’s wonderful.

5) Our Hospitality

I know it’s heretic for a Chaplinite to cite a Buster film, but seriously this is in my opinion one of Buster Keaton’s finest.  His comedy reminds me a lot of Bugs Bunny.  Not only is it hilarious (Buster has to stay at the house of a family trying to kill him for feuding reasons if I remember right), but the stunts are breathtaking.  Buster did all his own stunts, and in this film he makes a jump into a waterfall to save the girl from certain death.  I literally screamed the first time I seen it as its so shocking!  And yes, he really did it.  Take that Avatar.

sadiethompsonAnd for those who have seen silents before:

1) Birth of a Nation
Okay yes, blatant horrible racism. The reason to see it anyways is once you are familiar with silents, you can really appreciate the language of the film and just what it came to be.

2) Sadie Thompson
It’s slow building up, but God is it perfection before the missing reel. Gloria Swanson is divine!

3) Little Annie Rooney
Pure melodrama, but perhaps one of Mary Pickford’s finest performances.

4) Pandora’s Box
Louise Brooks plays a Jewish hooker who gets murdered, seriously, one of the best silent films ever.

5) Anything Lon Chaney
God I love that man!  His films were fantastic, and really make you think.  Phantom is overrated but not bad.  I particularly liked He Who Gets Slapped.  So sad and bizarre.

Banky,1QoV: Who are your favourite silent film stars and why?

Hala Pickford: I think it’s obvious who I adore:  D.W. Griffith, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Gloria Swanson, Rudolph Valentino, Louise Brooks, Theda Bara, Clara Bow, Vilma Banky (pictured left), so forth.

But I’d really like people to know my favorite obscure names.  These people were just amazing: Miriam Cooper (Dark Lady of the Silents),Frederica Sagor Maas (The Shocking Miss Pilgrim), Anita Page, Olive Thomas, Nita Naldi , June Mathis, Fatty Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, Lottie Pickford (she wasn’t a good actress, but she was very interesting!).

QoV: Do you wear vintage?

Hala Pickford: I rarely go out in full regalia, and only then if there is a reason -such as an event. Walking around in faux fur, cloche, flapper dress, stockings, and bow lips is a bit much.  I like to adapt the 10s and Twenties look to my everyday use.  I’ll do one thing and mix it with a modern style.  For instance it’s my goal in life to own a gaudy baby vamp (Edwardian) hat and wear it with jeans.  For now I will do a cloche and Bow lips with jeans, that type of thing.

QoV: If so, where do you shop?

Hala Pickford: Much like silent film itself, a lot of clothing from the silent era has long turned to dust.  The gorgeous pieces still with us are so fragile that special care must be taken to wear and store them.  So no, nothing authentic for me in way of actual dresses.  But if I were to go that route I’d get a vintage pattern and have a new version made. ReVamp Vintage is good with that, Remix shoes as well.

For us poorer girls I think eBay is the way to go.  Get an authentic hat and accessories to use.  I get the damndest things on eBay like a fuchsia feathered cloche and an ‘automatic loose powder dispenser’  – it works pretty well.  In LA I find stores like Sidecca and Urban Outfitters have lovely ‘new but Twenties looking’ stuff, especially hats (Urban Outfitters has the best modern hats)  H&M occasionally has some good stuff as well, I’ve gotten some very flapper looking dresses there.  As for hoisery I think online is the way to go (I want my silk stockings!) but for ‘realistic enough’ Frederick’s of Hollywood and Beverly Hills Hosiery are both good.

QoV: Is there a Mr Fairbanks Sr in your life?

Hala Pickford: There totally should be shouldn’t there?  Its unfortunate to have silent film and vintage clothing as a hobby/passion due to most of the men being gay or over 60 (and not rich enough to look past it…)  Good God I’d love to be a Ziegfeld Girl!  But for now I’ll wait for my Charlie or Rudy look alike – there must be one out there somewhere!

5 Responses

  1. Tara

    Hala, your projects are very interesting. Did you ever write that book on Mabel Normand? I’d love to know more about her…

  2. Lya de Putti

    Great article! It’s wonderful that you are trying to keep the spirit of the silents alive.

    Did you ever get around to making the Rudolph Valentino’s Chicken From Parma?!

  3. Gretchen

    Hey, what about Pola Negri, Viola Dana, Norma and Constance Talmadge, and other silent divas like these? The Talmadges were second only to “Pickfair” by popularity and influence, as far as I know. (Funny how this portmanteau reminds me of all those Bennifers and Brangelinas of today!)

  4. Peter Fox

    Hi There,

    Terrific article.

    My Grandmother is Rosa Rudami, who made films in the silent era. Her biggest role came in The Wedding Song opposite Alan Hale. I have been trying to find a print or video version of this film. Do you know of any sources ( I have already tried the AFI and Academy in the hopes of finding one) where I might find a print?


    Peter Fox

  5. Hala Pickford

    Hi everyone! Tara its on the burner somewhere…it was very discouraging. I’m actually working on another Mabel tinged project at the moment. I adore her!

    Lya as a vegetarian I don’t think I’ll ever get that far, but I’ll have a friend try it. Let me know when your book is out! (also as a de Putti you might want to avoid small boned meats :p…)

    Gretchen they count too, not sure where you wanted them mentioned! The Talmadges are overrated to me, Norma anyways. Kiki was better than Mary’s but…still…blah. I’m not big on Pola either but I don’t actively dislike any of those ladies. Now Joan Crawford on the other hand…

    Peter: Interesting you ask as I’m in the middle of an epic ‘save the film’ project right now. UCLA as always has a print of The Wedding Song (very long link: http://cinema.library.ucla.edu/cgi-bin/Pwebrecon.cgi?Search_Arg=Rosa+Rudami&SL=None&Search_Code=KCRD&PID=F4NsQ5IhdewFPATa4jby72s1aLuE&SEQ=20100303145733&CNT=50&HIST=1)

    It might not be easy to get a viewing copy as its archival and needs approval, but you could contact them about it. Any more questions just email me misspickford @ forgetthetalkies.com