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How the Silent stars won acclaim of film audiences.

Byline: Dan O'Neill Down Memory Lane

ELL now, let's see. What great events of 1914 are we remembering 100 years on? WThe start of the Great War? Right! The arrival of Mrs Thomas' baby boy? Right! The first performance of Shaw's Pygmalion and the gasps when Mrs Patrick Campbell's Eliza Doolittle uttered that famous, or infamous, line "Not bloody likely"? Well maybe.

But today let's recall one of the greatest landmarks in cinema history. Let's slip into the Picture Playhouse or perhaps the Imperial Picture Palace on a Queen Street heaving with horse-drawn traffic. And let's see for the first time Charlie Chaplin up there on the primitive flickering screen.

Yes, this month we should be celebrating the 100th anniversary of Chaplin's first film, Making a Living.

The early critics weren't sure about it. "Will the brilliant young comic adapt to working in a new medium?" they wondered. Well, if he hadn't we wouldn't be remembering him 100 years after it happened right here in Cardiff, where the Imperial Orchestra provided the soundtrack for his antics, where you paid from threepence to one silver shilling with afternoon tea to follow...

But this wasn't the Chaplin whose face would soon be the best-known in the entire world. The trademark bowler hat, the toothbrush moustache and cane came with his second film, Kid Auto Races at Venice. Then, in May, Caught in the Rain, written and directed by the Little Tramp, took him on the road to immortality.

By then those critics were at his feet. "This original little personality has already conquered American hearts and looks certain to conquer Europe in turn."

And the rest of the world as well for the Silents, as we call them, gave us the first truly universal language since they bulldozed Babel.

An urchin from Newtown, a small boy in Bombay and a kid in Caracas were brothers under the skin when watching Chaplin or John Bunny or the Keystone Kops or Buster Keaton or Fatty Arbuckle and others, long-forgotten, who flitted across our Cardiff screens.

No luxury in those old cinemas, no seats to swallow you as you sank back, no sound of course.

But there must have been a magic about them you won't find in a multiplex because the Playhouse and the Picture Palace meant escape from a life lacking everything we take for granted today.

From their wooden benches they were whisked away to worlds as alien to them as Wonderland was to demure parson's daughter Alice. (In passing, Cardiff must have seen the first "Alice" film, made in 1903).

So what were they watching in Cardiff and the picture palaces of the valleys in the year Dylan, a fervent film fan, was born? The great comedians, naturally, and some now forgotten though once it seemed that they would shine forever like Chaplin and Keaton and Harold Lloyd.

In America they loved a British-born comedian, a former roly-poly stage actor named John Bunny. He made more than 150 films but died in 1915 at the peak of his popularity. His films seem to have died with him.

Then there was France's Max Linder, a Cardiff crowd-pleaser, who for a time rivalled Chaplin. Indeed, Chaplin acknowledged his debt to Linder, borrowing some of his "business" in City Lights.

Keaton, too, was influenced by him, as well as the less-likely Marx Brothers.

But in 1914 what took them back to the Playhouse week after week was a serial, The Perils of Pauline, billed as "The Eclectic Film Company's Great $25,000 Photo-Play."

As Pauline, young Pearl White ended each episode in Peril, most memorably tied to a railway line, train approaching, or dangling from a cliff, villain gleefully twirling obligatory moustache. Hence the term cliffhanger, guaranteed to get 'em back next week.

And just two years after the real thing they were watching Atlantis, an epic based on the sinking of the Titanic with "80 first-class actors and no less than 500 extras."

Meanwhile, we were given the first glimpse of what would be the most enduring of all film genres, the Western. The Squaw Man starred the original cowboy hero, Dustin Farnum, template for John Wayne and Randolph Scott, Ken Maynard and Buck Rogers, even those crooning cowhands Gene Autrey and Roy Rogers.

Naturally, the Bible was big business as well with the legendary D W Griffiths' Judith of Bethulia steaming up great-great grandad's glasses as the heroine Judith offered her virtue to the commander besieging her city, a plot to knock him off.

Lilian Gish is the only familiar name from that film, remembered now for her duel with Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter. But almost forgotten is Mary Pickford, queen of mawkish melodrama, "the girl with the curls," annointed America's Sweetheart, soon to be Queen of Hollywood when married to the dashing Douglas Fairbanks.

But the actress rated the greatest of all is now totally forgotten. They called Florence Lawrence (she'd have to change it today) "the first movie star." More than that, she was billed as "the star that radiates and scintillates more than any other luminaries in the film firmament." She made an incredible 21 films in 1914. All forgotten.

Like so much else that enchanted the people who lived here long ago, they're gone. But the great clowns like Chaplin live on, still flickering on smaller screens than even the Palace possessed.



Charlie Chaplin and his stooge Hank Mann in the silent classic City Lights from 1931

Chaplin's only serious rival for the title of silent cinema's greatest comedian, Buster Keaton
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:South Wales Echo (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Apr 15, 2014
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