Interview: Alicia Fletcher

Silent Sundays Poster

It’s a sunny, but frigid Saturday afternoon when film programmer, historian, and archivist Alicia Fletcher and I huddle around in lobby of the TIFF Bell Lightbox over coffee and tea to talk about her work putting together the Silent Sundays program at The Revue.

Also working in the Film Reference Library at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, Fletcher took over main programming duties for Silent Sundays from long time show runner and journalist Eric Veillette. A graduate from the Innis College Masters Program in Cinema Studies, she has been working to foster a deeper understanding of silent film in the city through her screenings at the oldest movie house still operating in the city.

This Sunday (December 8th), with live piano accompaniment from Jordan Klapman, Silent Sundays unleashes a trio of short comedies that highlight three of the silent screen’s biggest superstars: Buster Keaton’s first solo effort from 1920, One Week, Keaton’s possibly final teaming with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle in 1919, Backstage, and Charlie Chaplin’s 1917 film, The Adventurer, the last of his Keystone films and certainly the most technically ambitious film he had attempted to date. Also on the bill, a fourth mystery film, featuring Chaplin, that will play into the same comedic themes that when Fletcher and Veillette discovered it decided to programme it immediately. The series continues in the new year with feature length classic Pandora’s Box from 1929, and following that sometime later in the winter, a screening of Fritz Lang’s 1921 classic, Destiny. But for now, our discussion sticks to the lighter fare in the near future.

We chatted with Fletcher about her work as an archivist and with Silent Sundays, the importance of music in silent films today and during initial release, and a bit about the diverging careers and films of Arbuckle and Keaton.

Dork Shelf: How did you get into being an archivist? Because given your background it seems like taking the reins on Silent Sundays would be a great fit for you. Was there ever a moment that made you decide this is what you wanted to do with your career?

Alicia Fletcher - F2Alicia Fletcher: Film had always been a part of my life, but when I was younger it was a lot broader. I started getting into silent films as I was growing up, and in my undergraduate it was what I studied the most. Then when I did my Masters in cinema studies, it was just my luck that I was surrounded by people who were really huge silent film enthusiasts. I studied with professors who were really, really into Silent Sundays under Eric, and it really impressed upon me that you could study silent films, but you’ll always have a major hindrance, which is that they are not all out there. Or that they are shorter now than they were before.

These films are trapped in ways that other later films are not because of the archival resources. That then led me to initially want to work in an archive. So I found a program that actually let me study at the George Eastman House. I think any film archive would have been wonderful to work at, but George Eastman House specializes in silent film. They have a collection that can’t be equalled by any other collection in the world. And it’s in Rochester, New York, which isn’t that far from Toronto.

I got to be like a kid in a candy store there. I got to take in films from producers and directors that I had never heard of. These are films that, as much as it sounds like a cliché, were literally from the vault. They were on a shelf in a vault and we screened them. They were very private screenings, and I got to watch these films with the people who were going to restore them, so I got to see a very interesting and unique perspective on silent film that I think if you were just studying it, you don’t get that. Even just watching a restored film on DVD, you aren’t going to get that unless you are sitting next to the colour timer who did all the tinting that would argue that it wasn’t the right shade of violet that Cecil B. DeMille would have used. That was when, for me, being an archivist meant everything in terms of working on silent film.

I love other film, too, but anything silent draws me in, whether it’s archiving or doing projects that specifically go back not only to just silent film, but all early film going back as far as 1895 to about 1910. Those aren’t the films that are watched the most often, but are often the ones that need the most help.

DS: When you talk about restoring silent films there’s not only the deterioration of the image and everything that goes hand in hand with that, but there’s also the matter of the music. In many cases, you might only have the film or the music and be missing the other component.

AF: That’s so true! So often you will come across only one or the other. And that’s one of the things that I love about Silent Sundays. I’m not nearly as up to snuff as I could be with the music of silent films, and so many people know more than me on that subject, but this has taught me so much more about what music brings to a film as opposed to just studying it in an archive. But it is really important, and it’s partially why so many of my projects weren’t based solely on film, but everything that came with a film, so posters and cue sheets. The cue sheets which would say where the music would come in were one of the things we looked at the most at Eastman House while restoring a film, because in many cases where an intertitle or a card might be lost, you can look at the cue sheet and put the text back. Those became really important documents.

Predominantly today that’s what I largely work with. It’s not necessarily taking a real film and working on it, but taking all those things that come with a film and working on that is what I like to work on. It doesn’t get the glamour that maybe a single reel of film would get, but I really enjoy thinking about more stuff than just the movie itself.

DS: It’s kind of strange that you don’t really have a musical background because it seems like a lot of people would use the music almost as a gateway to the world of silent film.

AF: (laughs) It kind of is, because a lot of our audience, or at least most of them that I have interacted with it, seems come with that perspective. They know a lot about the silent films from what they might have seen on television, but they are really focusing on the music. We’re very lucky to have a lot of talented musicians that play at Silent Sundays. We have one that plays more than half, and that’s William O’Meara, and he’s been doing it for over 20 years or more. And he brings, I don’t want to say “groupies,” but that’s kind of what they are. (laughs) They’re watching the film entirely differently. I can’t speak for them, but I would say at least half of them if I talk to them afterwards were really focused on Bill’s playing. The film seems secondary. And I love that. I love that there’s actually a kind of cinema and a place in the Silent Sunday’s program where there’s an option for that. There’s a myriad of ways that you can approach silent films.

And what’s really special about having Jordan Klapman join us for the first time is just how enthusiastic he is to do comedies. He has played for films before, but quite often he gets called in to do decidedly heavy stuff. He does a lot of Russian epics. (laughs) I think he recently got done doing a lot of Eisenstein and things like that, so when we approached him with the idea of working with us on some comedy, there wasn’t a SECOND of hesitation. (laughs)

DS: And when these movies were released to people and to theatres, the people might not have given a second thought to the music, but now with the material and the stars more familiar to people it might open up a bigger appreciation for the live performance aspect.

AF: I think you’re right, but what I think we were the most surprised to discover was a primary document that was a survey of audiences from I think it was 1925. I would have to check my notes for the exact date, but they were asking patrons what would be the most important things to them that would bring them out to a movie palace. And number 1 was music. You would think it would be story, but story was only number 3. Music was number one. That’s what they would choose based on and when they would choose to go. If they were at The Loews, they knew they would get a full organ and an orchestra, and that’s what would create a full experience for them.

I would have to do more research that that to prove it, but it definitely wasn’t as personality driven as it is today. It was very much part of the understanding that music was integral to what was happening on screen, and people were making their choices and judgement based on that. I know that in certain reviews, films could get lambasted if they didn’t have good music. I think the studios knew that, and they were very, very careful for big things – something like the calibre of Wings – that as much effort went into the score as the special effects. They knew it was key, and we are so lucky that the score for that film survived, and with the restoration you can actually see how it was brought back together.

DS: I would imagine that to some degree at least the familiarity of the stars would have to come between the music and the story, because quite often you would deal with the same directors and the same actors over and over again working with each other. These guys would turn out sometimes 3 or 4 movies together in a year…

AF: Or in some cases, try TEN. Some people just worked in incredible numbers, especially if you looked at someone like Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin at certain points in their lives. There were years that Chaplin turned out more than thirty movies in year. It was almost at the rate of making one a week and just banging ‘em out.

I do think there’s something in the back of the heads of the audiences that come to Silent Sundays about whatever a star was doing. It’s so much easier for us to market a film that has a star in it, like a Keaton or a Chaplin or Rudolph Valentino. Even if someone hasn’t seen a Valentino film, that’s such an iconic name that they tend to come out in bigger numbers. We have played lots of films with stars in them that no one remembers, but we have to sell those a little bit harder.

And I do think that the star was more powerful then than they are today. It’s kind of hard to put your finger on, but there was something much more accessible about stars then as opposed to today, even though there are things like blogs and Twitter and terrible tabloids, but even though that last part was still around back then, studios were a lot more careful about making sure their stars seems approachable.

DS: It’s a testament to their hard work and studio marketing that we are still talking about people like Chaplin, or Valentino, or someone like Lon Chaney. They’ve had careers that have endured long after they have stopped working and passed away, and that feels like something that we might have lost.

AF: Lon Chaney is a great example of that. I think there’s another thing that I would add, probably because I always come back to the archival thing: that were bigger than those names or at least as big. But really, it’s just the luck of the draw. All it takes is one studio fire to wipe out their entire careers.

A really good example of that is Theda Bara. She’s certainly a name that a lot of people still know today, but there’s maybe only twenty minutes of footage that survived of her, along with one incomplete feature. And this was a woman who had a hundred films. They are just all gone. So we can’t approach her in the same way as someone like, say, Mary Pickford, who we KNOW she was bigger than. But there’s no opportunity to screen her films, or more than one and a half or one and a quarter of them at best. So how do you really understand that piece of history when you can really only program from, or screen, or study only what survived?

DS: The three films that I know you selected, because I don’t know what the mystery film is, are all indicative of how Keaton, Arbuckle, and Chaplin were really gifted physical comedians and stuntmen. Especially in something like One Week that’s heavily stunt driven and impeccably production designed.

AF: One Week and Backstage really appealed to me, and I think the pairing of them was pretty obvious. Backstage was one of the last to be released where Keaton and Arbuckle were paired together. One Week is the first Keaton solo project to be released after his partnership with Arbuckle ended. Seeing where those two films, which I think were only actually six months apart in terms of releases, and what Keaton was able to do with what he learned – and keep in mind that at this point Arbuckle was FAR more bankable and FAR more famous than Keaton – is something really special. It was make or break for him. Everyone was wondering if Keaton could even do it without Arbuckle, and for me it’s actually one of my favourite Keaton films.

It’s so fantastic, and what they do with this house that he’s trying to build and how agile he is in it. He was agile when he was with Arbuckle, too, but there was something about getting away from Arbuckle that made him lighter. It was like he was floating on air. It either might have been because Keaton and Arbuckle would be riffing off each other, but on his own Keaton almost became his own freed person in One Week. That was the birth of the Keaton we know now. Everything prior to that we were watching a build up to him working on his own stunts and persona. Everything was in flux for him a bit.

And with One Week that’s all him. Those phenomenal special effects and the things he can do with his body and how just unflappable he is. He doesn’t always crack a smile and if there’s ever a damsel in distress he’s always, like, “Here we go again.” That’s Keaton, and I think that’s why it connects with me so much.

DS: And One Week contains a callback to one of Keaton’s favourite gags that’s also used in Backstage, which is a section of a wall or a house falling down around someone and the other person is miraculously standing where the window or door is.

AF: Yeah! Like, I said, these films are less than a year apart, and it’s amazing that you could repeat those gags. It also happens with Chaplin, too. If you watch The Rink and then you watch Modern Times, you can see that he’s calling back to a gag 15 years before that worked on one level, but maybe they weren’t exactly iconic and he comes back to make them iconic later. That’s one of the things that’s so interesting about Backstage and One Week, that he could build up to something like that not even a year later.

And the stunt you’re talking about in One Week, really is the make or break stunt of the whole film. If that hadn’t have worked, I don’t know what would have happened to Keaton’s career. You watch that moment and you realize there’s no one else who does this. It’s different than Chaplin, because he was going in a different direction in his career at this point, but One Week for me is really special.

DS: There are a lot of things in One Week that I think a lot of modern comedic and action filmmakers still borrow from. It starts off, oddly enough, with a car chase that has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the story, but it’s still this really huge set piece…

AF: Nope! (laughs) It doesn’t go anywhere!

DS: …but it does get the audience invested and excited right off the top. There’s about 30 seconds of set up and then, BAM, a car chase.

AF: And anything with that kind of set up or a car chase is really indicative of the Keystone movies and where these actors all kind of came from. I feel like Keaton is always careful to not go too far from the mold. I think he knows what works, and he’s good with that. But everything he does in One Week is just done to one-up what’s already in place. That car chase is something you think is going to go on much longer and all these things are going to come up, and then they don’t, and it becomes an entirely different movie.

DS: It’s also I think one of the first “house from hell” kind of movies where this ideal vision of a future does everything possible as a character itself to make the owners’ lives a living hell.

AF: You might be right, or at least something that would take it to that extreme level. I was watching Boardwalk Empire, which is a show that I really like because if you’re really into the 20s like I am, really what other show is there? (laughs) And Michael Shannon’s character on there is building these pre-manufactured homes from the Sears Catalogue, and it’s just a piece of crap and the wife is mad, and having just watched One Week really recently before that, I realized that with Keaton’s film unlike today, audiences from 1915 to 1920 had this as a part of their life. There was this idea of buying your own catalogue house and building it from yourself from a kit. It would be like buying a house from Ikea and we just don’t have that. That’s something I always try to look at with Silent Sundays and ask. “What would an audience member from that time period bring to a film that we are no longer bringing to it?” I do think with One Week, it’s that the average person who wanted to be upwardly mobile was buying their home from a catalogue, putting them together, and they all look the same.

DS: Backstage, which we touched on a little bit, might have been the last film they made together, but maybe not the last to be released…

AF: Yeah, there’s some dispute about that, and I found some contradictory information about that when doing my research and programming it for Silent Sundays. I looked into it and it appear that there just might be another film that was made after that maybe just didn’t survive. I need to look into it even more to see what it is. I think it’s safe to say it’s one of the last three. But you might be right in that it was the last to be released, but not actually filmed.

DS: But there is something about it where if you watch it with the knowledge that it might be the last film they did together, it does take on almost the tone of a victory lap for the two of them. It really feels like a swan song that takes them back to their roots as actors.

AF: Absolutely, which is vaudeville. Backstage, I think, was important for me to show because I wanted to do Arbuckle. I wanted to do justice to Arbuckle, because it was one of the last films they released together, but it was right on the cusp of something. We know that a year later, Arbuckle’s career is completely destroyed in a way like nothing we have ever experienced today or likely ever will again. He went from top money maker – and, of course, he did his own solo features after Backstage, as well, and they were succeeful – to being completely blacklisted from Hollywood, which lasted until the 30s where he was still directing films under a pseudonym.

But something like Backstage comes up again in things like Keaton’s The Play House, which we showed at Silent Sundays once and I think is from 1922, which wasn’t far after One Week, and again Keaton is coming back to that partnership with Arbuckle and doing that look behind the scenes of a theatre and of a performance. In The Play House, though, Keaton through the use of special effects is able to play almost everybody in the film.

But I love Backstage so much, and I love Fatty Arbuckle in it more than I do Keaton. There’s definitely that swan song aspect that we bring to it now that we know Keaton will go on to become the star and Arbuckle won’t be heard from much more in the ensuing years. It’s a bridge in both of their careers. And I don’t think a lot of people even watch the Arbuckle features that he made after this one. We think of him primarily as an accessory, which isn’t fair because there are huge, rabid Arbuckle fans out there. But he doesn’t have fans that are in the numbers of say a Keaton or a Chaplin. He’s very much more niche, but I think that’s totally undeserved, because he is someone so integral to the careers of both Keaton and Chaplin. Especially Keaton. I thought this was the best way to go to show that bridge between these careers.

DS: And Backstage is a deliciously dark kind of comedy that I’m amazed no one has really tried to re-do it. There’s something as an audience member to watch a film with two actors at the top of their game trying to do away with this egomaniacal star that’s really entertaining.

AF: Yeah, it’s very much post-modern in a lot of ways, and there’s a lot of breaking of the fourth wall, and sometimes even a real aggression to the humour that’s also still quite humble. It’s very interesting. And we know how famous they got and how famous they already were, but you were right. It was quite human, and going back to what we said earlier, it made them seem approachable. They got even more exponentially famous as time went on, and the idea that we were looking back on them before they got big offers up what might be kind of a critique of some of the stars they had to deal with and work with. I don’t think you could make that movie without having been in that kind of situation first.

But it’s still a movie that you can bring a child to. I think one of the things that I love the most and the way that we approach the booking of the comedies for Silent Sundays is to keep it fun. There are many people who will bring their kids to the comedies in particular, and I have begun to recognize, but I’ll always be seeing new faces and wondering if this is their first silent film. To me that’s awesome. That’s the clincher for me.