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The Five Greatest Directors of the Silent Era

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Back when cinema was still in its infancy, these five filmmakers were shaping its future.

Great Silent Directors DW Griffith

D.W. Griffith (1875-1948)
Quote: “A film without a message is just a waste of time.”

Known as: America’s first great filmmaker and innovator. He pioneered numerous cinematic elements that we now take for granted, including close-ups, pans, and cross-cutting between separate events. Though his epic Birth of a Nation is rightly excoriated for its racist content, it is nevertheless an essential work in the development of a filmic language.

Debut: The Adventures of Dollie (1908)
Breakthrough: Enoch Arden (1911)
Masterpieces: Birth of a Nation (1915), Intolerance (1916)
Biggest Failure: Intolerance (1916)
Overlooked Gem: Broken Blossoms (1919)

Influences: Edwin S. Porter, Billy Bitzer
Disciples: Everyone who came after him, whether they know it or not

Great Silent Directors Sergei Eisenstein

Sergei Eisenstein (1898-1948)
Quote: “Art is always conflict, according to its methodology.”

Known as: The Master of Montage. During the heady years following the Russian Revolution, he created some of the greatest works of Soviet cinema, before ultimately falling out of favor with the Stalinist regime. The most important film theorist of his time (and arguably of the 20th century), he advanced the idea that meaning could be derived through editing.

Debut: Strike (1925)
Breakthrough: Battleship Potemkin (1925)
Masterpieces: Battleship Potemkin (1923); October (1927); Alexander Nevsky (1938)
Biggest Failure: Que Viva Mexico
Overlooked Gem: The General Line (1929)

Influences: D.W. Griffith, Lev Kuleshov
Disciples: Everyone who came after him

Great Silent Directors F.W. Murnau

F.W. Murnau (1889-1931)
Quote: “The camera is the director’s pencil. It should have the greatest possible mobility in order to record the most fleeting harmony of atmosphere. It is important that the mechanical factor should not stand between the spectator and the film.”

Known as: Cinema’s original master of the moving camera. While most of his contemporaries were content to keep the camera stationary, he (aided by his brilliant cinematographer Karl Freund) insisted on letting it roam. First in his native Germany and then in the U.S., he created some of silent cinema’s most lyrical and visually intriguing classics. His 1924 film The Last Laugh is so masterful that it tells its story without the title cards that are the staple of silent films.

Debut: Der Knabe in Blau (1919)
Breakthrough: Nosferatu (1922)
Masterpieces: The Last Laugh (1924); Sunrise (1968)
Biggest Failure: Tabu (1931)
Overlooked Gem: Faust (1926)

Influences: Max Reinhardt
Disciples: Karl Freund, Max Ophuls

Great Silent Directors Erich von Stroheim

Erich von Stroheim (1885-1957)
Quote: On the studio-authorized mutilation of his masterpiece, Greed : “It was cut by a hack cutter who had nothing on his mind but his hat.”

Known as: “The Man You Love to Hate” (for his early screen portrayals of villains). Von Stroheim was a notorious perfectionist, which often resulted in films of epic lengths and massive budgets. This reputation has tended to overshadow the fact that he was a brilliant filmmaker, whose movies were incredibly sophisticated and daring for their time. After numerous battles with studio bosses, including the famed desecration of Greed, he was essentially blackballed as a director, and is remembered by most people for his performance in Sunset Boulevard.

Debut: Blind Husbands (1919)
Breakthrough: Blind Husbands (1919)
Masterpieces: Foolish Wives (1922); Greed (1924)
Biggest Failure: Greed (1924)
Overlooked Gem: The Wedding March (1928)

Influences: D.W. Griffith
Disciples: Jean Renoir, Orson Welles

Great Silent Directors Buster Keaton

Buster Keaton (1895-1966)
Quote: “How can a man in slap shoes and a flat hat be considered a genius?”

Known as: “The Great Stoneface.” An actor, director, and stuntman, he created some of the funniest and most astonishing visual gags in movie history. As a filmmaker he was far ahead of his contemporary, Charlie Chaplin, continually testing and exploring the limits of the cinematic frame.

Debut: One Week (1920)
Breakthrough: The Three Ages (1923)
Masterpieces: Our Hospitality (1923); The General (1927)
Biggest Failure: The General (1927)
Overlooked Gem: Spite Marriage (1929)

Influences: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Harry Houdini
Disciples: Samuel Beckett, Jackie Chan, Mel Brooks

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Kick-Ass TV Heroines: Xena – Warrior Princess

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Xena Warrior Princess

What was not to love about Xena? As Lucy Lawless says: “Xena is a bad-ass, kick-ass, pre-Mycenaean girl.” Evildoers, clearly, must stand down, but not only bad guys (and girls) have Xena-phobia. Even heroes quake when she swings her broadsword.

Originally created as a syndicated complement to Kevin Sorbo’s Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena pretty much kicked Herc to the curb. It was like when the Bionic Woman made us lose interest in the Six Million Dollar Man–only more so.

Unlike Lindsay Wagner’s early half-woman, half-machine, Xena wasn’t prone to frailty. Nor did she need robot parts. In fact, the Warrior Princess never lost. If she’s down, it’s not for long.

Plus, she was in touch with the dark side: This big-boned bruiser had definite moments of blood lust, as well as lust of some other varieties. Garbed in a leather miniskirt and armed with her trademark razor-edged, boomerang-action chakram, we watched Xena single-leggedly kick down entire platoons of Roman soldiers.

Sure, there were murmurings about Xena and her softer female sidekick, Gabrielle (actress Renée O’Connor). So what if they liked to conserve bathwater by doubling up? And what’s wrong with close friends frenching once in a while?

Then again, maybe it was true–and there’s anything wrong with that.

Actress: Lucy Lawless
Show: Xena: Warrior Princess
Character: Xena

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Classic TV Revisited: McMillan And Wife

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McMillan And Wife

Starring Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James, McMillan and Wife was a super cute crime-solving saga from the 1970s made for the NBC’s Mystery Movie series.

Who were they?
Hubby was the debonair San Francisco police commissioner Stewart McMillan.

And wifey?
Sally was a foxy, rather scatterbrained dame with a knack for finding corpses.

Worked down the morgue did she?
Hardly. Sally’s finds were usually in some glitzy mansion which the couple were frequenting for a weekend cocktail party. She also had a habit of getting her life threatened or being kidnapped.

Who was in it?
Tragic Hollywood star Rock Hudson no less. He took on Stewart McMillan in his first TV role, after years as a matinee idol with movies such as Giant.

Tragedy?
Fans of the lantern-jawed star were dismayed when he went public about having Aids. He had long kept his homosexuality secret. He carried on working in ’80s glam drama Dynasty, but make-up could not disguise the deterioration of this once-statuesque man. He died in 1985, aged 59.

What about Sally?
That role fell to raven-locked Susan Saint James. The Ali MacGraw lookalike was previously in shows such as Alias Smith And Jones and The Name of the Game.

Other characters
A vital ingredient to McMillan And Wife was sharp-tongued housekeeper Mildred, played by Nancy Walker. Somebody needed to keep the place tidy while they gallivanted about solving crime.

Famous guest stars?
Kim Basinger

The couple’s conception?
Like Hart To Hart, the idea was borrowed from Dashiell Hammett’s Thin Man books of the ’30s.

Gritty crime drama?
Hardly. These were cosy whodunnit cases, where the brutality of murder was never portrayed. The show was more about the interplay between McMillan and Sally.

Had viewers arrested?
Certainly in the US. It was the fifth highest-rated show in 1972 and 1973.

Fate of the golden couple?
Susan Saint James quit in 1976 over a contractual dispute. Nancy Walker also packed away her duster as housekeeper Mildred.

The dame’s exit was a fatal blow?
Certainly for the character of Sally – she was killed off in a plane crash. But Rock soldiered on with new assistant Sgt Steve DiMaggio (Richard Gilliland). The show became McMillan.

A winner?
Audiences dwindled and the plug was pulled.

Distinguishing features?
Cosy pillow talk, cocktail parties, Rock Hudson, pyjamas and numerous corpses.

Do say
Let’s go to bed. Turn the light out, darling.

Don’t say
Must you eat toast in bed, darling. Apologies, but I’ve got terrible flatulence. Separate bedrooms.

Not to be confused with
My Wife Next Door, Harold Macmillan, The Merry Wives Of Windsor and Mr And Mrs.

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Classic TV Revisited: The Royal

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The Royal

The Royal was an ITV drama commission and was inspired by its sister programme Heartbeat.

The lowdown: This nostalgic family drama is set in the swinging 1960s and centres on the staff of a cottage hospital in Yorkshire. Newly qualified doctor David Cheriton (Julian Ovenden) is determined to make a difference to the world and arrives at St Aidan’s Royal Free Hospital in Elinsby full of big ideas. But he clashes with the hospital’s secretary TJ Middleditch (Ian Carmichael) who is determined to run things his way. Then there is the Matron (Wendy Craig) who rules her nurses with a rod of iron and tries in vain to stop them being distracted by the handsome arrival.

Memorable moments: Watch out for former Heartbeat favourite Bill Maynard who crosses dramas and continents as Claude Jeremiah Greengrass. Greengrass has returned from a Caribbean holiday with a mystery illness but that doesn’t stop him trying to earn a fast buck. It doesn’t take long before Claude attracts Matron’s ire.

Trivia: The Royal is a family affair for real life husband and wife Robert Daws (Ormerod) and Amy Robbins (Weatherill). No fewer than seven members of their clan have appeared in the series including their daughters and stepson.

Michelle Hardwick, who played receptionist Lizzie, says her favourite moment in the whole series didn’t come on screen but in the actors’ green room. She says: “I was sitting in there with Wendy Craig and Honor Blackman and we were having a lovely conversation. I sat back and thought ‘Wow, this is great, I can’t wait to tell my gran’.”

A modern day set version called The Royal Today aired 7 January – 14 March 2008.

First broadcast: 2003

Starred: Wendy Craig, Ian Carmichael, Michael Starke, Robert Daws and Julian Ovenden

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