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The Lonedale Operator


ISSUE:  Summer 1981

The first movie I ever saw was the Walt Disney cartoon, The Three Little Pigs. My grandmother took me to it. It was back in the days when you went “downtown.” There was a second feature, with live actors, called Bring ‘Em Back Alive, a documentary about the animal tamer Frank Buck. In this film you saw a python swallow a live pig. This wasn’t scary. In fact, it seemed quite normal, the sort of thing you would see in a movie—”reality.”

A little later we went downtown again to see a movie of Alice in Wonderland, also with live actors. This wasn’t very surprising either. I think I knew something about the story; maybe it had been read to me. That wasn’t why it wasn’t surprising, though. The reason was that these famous movie actors, like W.C. Fields and Gary Cooper, were playing different roles, and even though I didn’t know who they were, they were obviously important for doing other kinds of acting, and so it didn’t seem strange that they should be acting in a special way like this, pretending to be characters that people already knew about from a book. In other words, I imagined other specialties for them just from having seen this one example. And I was right, too, though not about the film, which I liked. Years later I saw it when I was grown up and thought it was awful. How could I have been wrong the first time? I knew it wasn’t inexperience, because somehow I was experienced the first time I saw a movie. It was as though my taste had changed, though I had not, and I still can’t help feeling that I was right the first time, when I was still relatively unencumbered by my experience.

I forget what were the next movies I saw and will skip ahead to one I saw when I was grown up, The Lonedale Operator, a silent short by D.W. Griffith, made in 1911 and starring Blanche Sweet. Although I was in my twenties when I saw it at the Museum of Modern Art, it seems as remote from me in time as my first viewing of Alice in Wonderland. I can remember almost none of it, and the little I can remember may have been in another Griffith short, The Lonely Villa, which may have been on the same program. It seems that Blanche Sweet was a heroic telephone operator who managed to get through to the police and foil some gangsters who were trying to rob a railroad depot, though I also see this living room—small, though it was supposed to be in a large house— with Mary Pickford running around, and this may have been a scene in The Lonely Villa. At that moment the memories stop, and terror, or tedium, sets in. It’s hard to tell which is which in this memory, because the boredom of living in a lonely place or having a lonely job, and even of being so far in the past and having to wear those funny uncomfortable clothes and hair styles is terrifying, more so than the intentional scariness of the plot, the criminals, whoever they were.

Imagine that innocence (Lillian Harvey) encounters romance (Willy Fritsch) in the home of experience (Albert Basserman). From there it is only a step to terror, under the dripping boughs outside. Anything can change as fast as it wants to, and in doing so may pass through a more or less terrible phase, but the true terror is in the swiftness of changing, forward or backward, slipping always just beyond our control. The actors are like people on drugs, though they aren’t doing anything unusual—as a matter of fact, they are performing brilliantly.

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