We are proud to present the inaugural screening of what we hope to be a regular series of rare and unusual silent films brought to you from the Harpodeon film library. There are two programs this year. The theme of the first is railroad disasters and the second is LGBTQ+ silents. Maine’s own Doug Prostik provides live musical accompaniment for both. Come and join us at the historic Alamo Theatre, which first opened its doors in 1916.
It is difficult to understand today just what a modern marvel trains were in the early twentieth century. They allowed for speedy travel where once such journeys would have taken many weeks, but trains were also fraught with new and worrying dangers that disaster films were quick to exploit. From short actualities to models and special effects, railroad disasters reached their peak with full-scale train wrecks in the mid-1910s.
The original railroad disaster, a smashup—a sort of carnival sideshow and precursor to the demolition derby—is caught on film when two decommissioned engines strike each other head-on.
“A Drama on a Locomotive”. Building on the smashup tradition, disaster strikes when two railroad engineers vying for the same woman begin to fight in the train’s cockpit and miss a stop signal, sending them head-long into another train.
Likely a trial-run for The Juggernaut, in this Hazel Neason short, lightning strikes and destroys a trestle over which a train is about to pass and the engineer’s mother must find a way to warn him in time.
The president of a railroad notorious for cutting maintenance and safety measures to maximize profits fights dirty against a lawsuit brought against him by his erstwhile friend and now district attorney while, aboard one of his trains, his daughter unwittingly speeds toward her doom. This is the first time The Juggernaut has been seen in Maine since 1920.
Modern audience may not realize it, but silent films dealing with LGBTQ+ themes not only exist but are not so unusual. American films did, however, have to contend with censors that were not at all friendly and had to be got around in one of several ways. Gay characters may be hidden behind coding, or excused as a parody, or “what if” scenarios.
From Alice Guy-Blaché, the first female director, Algie is the prototypical example of a coded gay man. Soft and effeminate, he is out west ostensibly to prove himself a man to win the approval of his fiancée’s father, but it takes little to see how important Algie becomes in his mentor Big Jim’s life.
In this burlesque of The Spoilers, the cowboy who falls in love with Stan Laurel is anything but coded. Rare in silent cinema, he is explicitly gay, and almost unique, he gets the last laugh.
Lillian, with the help of a magic seed, transitions into Lawrence and Bessie accepts his marriage proposal. Of all American silent films, A Florida Enchantment must rate among the most surprisingly frank depictions of a transgender romance.