Silent Film versus Talkies

By Shannon Rowan

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Like most college students my age, I had never seen a silent film prior to watching Flesh and Spirit for the film screening.  When I learned that we would be watching and screening a silent film, I didn’t know what to expect.  I had always just considered silent films to be boring and outdated, with very cheesy acting.  After watching one silent film, I realized that were actually more interesting and enjoyable than I had always thought.  It was a much different experience than watching a regular Hollywood blockbuster from today.

Since the silent film seemed to actually be interesting, I decided to try to view some other silent films as well to see if they still held any appeal. I watched some old silent films starring Charlie Chaplin. I was surprised by how funny the movies were. They tended to use a more exaggerated style of acting that makes the plot as easy to follow as it would if the characters were speaking and had spoken lines. The actors and actresses are very skilled at portraying their emotions through body language and facial expressions. It is incredible how much they were able to communicate without saying a single word. Also, it was much easier than I had anticipated to be able to follow the plot and enjoy the movie.

After I learned that silent films used to be accompanied by live music, I was curious to see how that would change my silent film experience. During our screening of Her Fractured Voice, His Neglected Wife, and  Flesh and Spirit, music was provided by “Dos Noisemakers.” With the musical accompaniment, the silent films were much easier to follow.  It was very similar to a soundtrack for a movie or television show: the music would pick up during action scenes and slow down to draw out suspense.  I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to give silent films a chance and to appreciate a lost art of acting.  I now have a new and very surprising appreciation for the lost art of silent films.

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The Sterling Hotel

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The United States Motion Picture Corporation film His Neglected Wife, produced about 1918, is set at Wilkes-Barre’s Hotel Sterling.

As I walked down North River Street with friends on the day that I first arrived in Wilkes-Barre, I came across a massive decrepit building. I looked up and thought to myself, “How someone could let such an amazing building become so worn is astonishing.” I enquired about what the building was and on finding out that it was the “famous Hotel Sterling,” I wondered if it was another victim of the recent recession that had hit most of the western world pretty hard.

Coming from a modern European city like Belfast, I am not used to seeing old fashioned hotels like the Sterling. Most of the hotels in urban Belfast are built with a modern feel. But when I look at the Sterling, even in today’s condition, it looks like it was a classy establishment, the kind of hotel where the staff would be proud to tell people that they work there, a place where the guests would know that they were living in luxury. The whole place oozes class.

After my first day explorations, though, I forgot all about the hotel and went about my business as a study abroad student. It wasn’t until Dr. Noreen O’Connor showed us the silent film His Neglected Wife that I thought about the old building again.

The hotel plays a big part in His Neglected Wife, a one-reel comedy that was filmed in Wilkes-Barre about 1918. In the film, the leading lady runs away from her husband, who tended to favour his career over her needs, and finds herself escaping to the Hotel Sterling.

After watching His Neglected Wife I decided to look into the hotel a little bit more. I didn’t have to look far in order to find out some information about one of Wilkes-Barre’s famous landmarks. A quick internet search helped me discover how well-thought-of the Sterling was in the local community. There were protest pages and others just showing support for the historical building. The people of the city realize how important the hotel was during the twentieth century. People look at the building with a sense of pride and it’s obvious that a lot of people would snap it up in a heartbeat and rebuild it to its former glory if they had the money to.

Unfortunately, in this day and age, money just isn’t readily available for historical restorations on such a massive scale. The Sterling now seems to have been condemned to be demolished despite the local protests. Groups have tried to encourage investors to take over the burden of reinventing the hotel and it nearly happened just a few years ago when the non-profit organisation CityVest planned to restore the original Sterling building and reopen to the public. However the plan fell through once it became clear how much of a mammoth task they faced. After it became clear that their restoration was impossible the group decided that the best option for the building would be to demolish it.

More research showed that the hotel was used by lots of famous politicians over the years. The most famous of the hotel’s guests has to President John F Kennedy, who stayed there during the early 1960’s. This is very impressive to someone from Northern Ireland because JFK is perhaps the most famous modern day (to an extent) president and throughout Europe most people are aware of his presidential tenure and of course his tragic fate.

It seems now though that the Hotel Sterling has been condemned to a similar fate as that of the late President Kennedy. It is expected to be demolished in the near future and then it will be alive only in the memories of those who stayed there or the people of Wilkes-Barre. It will however be written into the history books as one of the city’s famous landmarks and going by the general consensus around the King’s College campus and even the city as a whole, the day that the Hotel Sterling is knocked down will be the end of an era and the look of the Susquehanna River front will be changed forever.

Wilkes-Barre or Hollywood?

By Christopher Cozillio

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The second Paramount Black Diamond Comedy, filmed in Wilkes-Barre by the United States Motion Picture Corporation, features recognizable landmarks including the Luzerne County courthouse.

When I first began the silent film portion of my Writing for New Media course, my mind instantly went to Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.  After taking a film course my senior year of high school, I took an extreme interest in film.  We briefly touched on silent films, So I did not have extensive knowledge on the topic, but I had a base.  I was immediately fascinated by them.  When Dr. O’Connor announced that we would be studying silent films, and also putting on an event involving them, I was very excited.

The thing that amazed me most about the course material was the fact that our very own Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, was a hot bed for films and motion pictures in the early1900’s.   Although I love this city dearly, I was astonished at the thought of Wilkes-Barre being a breeding ground of fame and stardom.  Picturing Wilkes-Barre as “Hollywood-esque” was difficult for me to wrap my head around.  Many stars, such as Leatrice Joy from “Her Fractured Voice,” went on to Hollywood after her tenure in Wilkes-Barre.  Clearly, the industry exploded in size and moved west to Hollywood—exploded to a size that Wilkes-Barre could no longer house.  However, it is a fascinating part of our city’s culture that is, in my opinion, not widely or commonly known in our area.

I decided to put my opinion to the test.  I wanted to see just how big of a secret this was to our city’s current community.  I began by conducting interviews on the campus of King’s College.  Since most students have not resided in Wilkes-Barre their whole lives, I decided I would also venture into the heart of Wilkes-Barre, Public Square, as well.

I posed the question to all three students from King’s the same way.  “Do you know if Wilkes-Barre has a history of being a part of films/motion pictures?”  All three students seemed baffled by my inquiry.  When I then explained how prevalent it was in Wilkes-Barre, the students were shocked.  One student replied with, “Yeah…okay bud,” and walked away.  However, to my surprise, each student was from a surrounding city of Wilkes-Barre.  If they didn’t know, how would a student that hails from New Jersey or New York know?

It was time to broaden my search.  I thought that at least one individual would have had an idea, but I was surely mistaken.  “That must have been a long long time ago,” said one citizen.  “I knew this downtown area was bustling back in the day, but I had no idea about the film aspect.  That’s pretty cool.”  Out of the seven civilians that I approached, that was the closest I got to a person who knew of Wilkes-Barre’s past.

It turns out that I was not in the minority when I was surprised at the news of Wilkes-Barre’s film background.  Hopefully, this will change—it is too good to keep a secret.  I am glad my class, Dr. O’Connor, and Tony Brooks are doing our part to spread the word.  Hopefully we, along with inspiring others, can shed some light on this aspect of our city’s history.