Silent Take: “Star Wars” circa 1915

Like most people in my age group, Star Wars was a huge part of my childhood. And like many others my age, I fell out of love with Star Wars around the years 1997-99, when the not-so-special editions and the prequels were being inflicted on us. Around the same time, I was starting to get into silent film. I had never really liked Cecil B. DeMille’s clunky sound epics but I decided to give his early silent work a chance.

Wow! What a revelation! Many of DeMille’s sound films are plagued with plodding pace, horrendous dialogue and worse performances. His early silents, on the other hand, are snappy, clever and cheeky. I was hooked.

Visual inspiration: War of the Worlds
Visual inspiration: War of the Worlds

It struck me that the problems of later DeMille are similar to the problems of modern George Lucas. Both men started out strong but were soon hampered by tin ears for dialogue and the ability to coax horrendous performances out of normally good actors. And yet their films made gobs of money at the box office. Further, both directors were seduced by the absolute control that studio shoots and rear projection/greenscreen offered, leaving their productions with a stifled atmosphere.

So, who better to direct the silent version of Star Wars than Mr. DeMille?

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

Princess Leia was an easy choice. The sporty Florence La Badie would be ideal. Can’t you see her wielding a blaster? Plus, the hair!

Han Solo will be played by DeMille regular Elliott Dexter. As proven in A Romance of the Redwoods, he has the roguish manner to carry off the role. (I briefly considered casting Harrison Ford #1 but I don’t want to go to that well too many times. Besides, Harrison the First is entirely to pleasant and affable onscreen to be shooting green men under the table. Elliott Dexter would have no such qualms.)

Even more visual inspiration: The Steam Man
Even more visual inspiration: The Steam Man

For Luke Skywalker, I was torn between Bobby Harron and Charles Ray. Both were experienced with the whole “farm boy” thing and both were very good actors. I ultimately chose Ray because I felt he physically suited the part better.

Chewbacca was a bit of a problem. Aliens were not a common feature in ‘teens films. I finally decided to think like a 1915 filmmaker and cast Teddy the Keystone Dog in the part. Genius dogs were very popular and Teddy was a good actor. Plus, awwwwww!

Burr McIntosh has the proper gravity to be Obi Wan Kenobi. He is more strapping than Alec Guinness but is that right blend of fatherly and no-nonsense.

Grand Moff Tarkin was a challenge because Peter Cushing is a tough act to follow (or is it precede?) but I ultimately chose Tully Marshall, that remarkably versatile character actor. And for Darth Vader, I needed someone who could command a ship, strangle his subordinates and pull off the injured father routine. So I chose Hobart Bosworth. What he lacks in height, he more than makes up for in screen presence.

More War of the Worlds
More War of the Worlds

Finally, the droids. I have chosen to call them Clockwork Mechanical Men (with a nod to L. Frank Baum), as that would be more in keeping with the pop culture of the period. Comedians Slim Summerville and Bobby Vernon will play the parts, in heavy makeup and elaborate costume.

The look of the film is what would now be described as “steam punk” but I resent the appropriation of all Victorian, Edwardian and Great War-era science fiction by that term. I prefer to call it early sci-fi or high tech-low tech.

More visual inspiration: Tik Tok of Oz
More visual inspiration: Tik Tok of Oz

The droids in particular are probably going to look quite a bit different. Some combination of Oz-style mechanical men and The Steam Man of the Prairies. The ships will have a more spherical shape, in keeping with H.G. Wells.

What do you think, sirs?

17 Comments

  1. theartisticpackrat

    Lovingly as always.

    So, do you not like Steampunk, or do you just not like the term applied to all early sci-fi stories around 1915?

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    1. Movies, Silently

      The latter. I get annoyed with all early sci-fi being called steampunk the same way I get annoyed when folks say that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari “looks like a Tim Burton movie”

      I spend a lot of time being annoyed. 😉

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      1. theartisticpackrat

        Understandable. I would probably be more annoyed at the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari thing if I was a bigger fan of that movie, but that’s neither here nor there.

        Oh, and my previous post should say “lovely” not “lovingly.” I’m not running off of very much sleep. So, you’ll have to forgive my less the great spelling for the moment.

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  2. Davide Mana

    A group of brilliant voice actors and sound specialist did a Lux Radio Theater version of Star Wars a few years back – live for a SF convention.
    It was called The Adventures of Luke Skywalker.
    The recording was available for sale (benefitting a charity, IIRC) for a brief time, before the lawyers of Lucas Films caught them.
    It was (and is!) absolutely wonderful – the vocal talent imitated the voices of famous actors, so that Han Solo was played by Humphrey Bogart and Vader spoke with the voice of Bela Lugosi while Kenobi was James Stewart.
    Mickey Rooney and Katharine Hepburn were Luke and Leia, Laurel and Hardy thetwo droids, etc.
    And incidentally – Chewbacca was played by Rin Tin Tin.
    A radio drama: voices only, no images.
    Sort of a specular version of the silent movie described in this marvellous post.

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  3. kristina

    and, awesome as always. Why is it some of us love, no Lurve, games like fantasy casting, lists and ranking, but others don’t. I consider it part of the fun, and you do such a great job with these.

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  4. geelw

    I’m officially proposing marriage to this poster and production design idea. And yep, I hate the word “steampunk” being tossed around about past works as if that word and what it means today is “retro”-active. Perhaps if H.G. Wells had his working time machine (like in Time After Time), went forward to more modern times, swiped the word and took it back with him… Hmmmm… OK, shutting up, sir! I can’t wait for The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi posters now!

    Oh, and you COULD do the other SW film posters much later… as 1930’s sound films (ha ha)…

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      1. geelw

        Yeah, I was trying not to bring those wonderful serials up – they ARE hard to beat on a few fun levels. I was thinking an even lower budget studio (or worse, a much bigger budget DeMille blowout trilogy made from say 1935 to 1939), but then again I don’t think Flash or Buck cost a lot to make and going lower cost means you’re making a really short silent film with maybe two actors playing everything ;D

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  5. Joe Thompson

    Hi Fritzi. “Both men started out strong but were soon hampered by tin ears for dialogue and the ability to coax horrendous performances out of normally good actors.” Excellent analysis. And Teddy as Chewbacca. That would be cool.

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  6. Lê ^_^ (@startspreading)

    Star Wars is entertaining, but not my favorite sci-fi. Yet, I think I’d like it more if it was a silent film! I’m more familiar with 1920s silents, but this one sounds like a must-see and a rival to Griffith’s works.
    Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! 🙂
    Kisses!

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