Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Regeneration (1923)

I’m kicking off 1923 with this fragment from director Richard E. Norman. It serves as a reminder of the fragility of the art of film as a medium – and choices that are made about what is preserved and what is not.

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The opening credits inform us that this is part two of a serial produced by the Norman Film Manufacturing Company of Jacksonville Florida. An opening intertitle appears to assume the audience is up to speed as it informs us that we are seeing “The Eve of Sailing.” The opening shot is of a group of African American sailors (one in a chef’s uniform) working on the deck of a small craft. A man in an officer’s uniform talks to a young woman; she is concerned that the crew all look like “villains,” but he assures her he can control them. We get a shot of the one-legged cook singing a song about evading work, strumming on his crutch like it is a banjo. The officer chides him and orders fried chicken for dinner. The footage starts to break up pretty badly at this point, and much of the action can only be concluded by reading intertitles, which linger on the screen even as the nitrate damage dances around them. It appears that as they get far out to sea, the crew rebels and tries to force the officer and his girlfriend to surrender a treasure chart they have in their possession and which is presumably the motivator for the voyage. The cook, despite the rough treatment he received earlier, appears to side with them and work behind the scenes to help them to escape. He seems to sow seeds of discontent among the mutineers, who fall out and accuse one another of stealing the chart. The cook is menaced and surrenders the chart. The episode ends with a promise that the story will continue in part 3.

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Like many films from the silent era, this movie is essentially “lost,” but we are fortunate to have enough of it to know that it once existed. Studies show that a vast number of films from the silent era have been lost or destroyed over the decades. One reason we know so little now about African American film history is because the “race pictures” that were made in the silent era were not seen as culturally significant; some came from studios that went bankrupt and lost control over their collections, others were distributed with limited prints to begin with, and few film collectors have made them a priority. As with so many aspects of our culture, the most vulnerable groups lose out in history because they don’t have the power to prevent their erasure from history.

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Thankfully, however, we do have both this clip (thanks to the Library of Congress and Kino Lorber’s “Pioneers of African-American Cinema”). We also have a good deal of historical background about this movie, thanks to The Norman Studios Silent Movie Museum website. I won’t repeat everything you can read there, but they nicely document director Richard E. Norman’s showmanship and business acumen in working with distributors and local censors to get his movie seen. What we can see of the film reminds me of other adventure movies of the time, such as “Terror Island” with Harry Houdini. While the production values, marketing, etc may have been good, it’s somewhat disappointing to see the cook portrayed as a standard minstrel-show lazy Black man, though his apparent redemption as the one crew member not standing with the mutineers might help make up for that, if only we could see it more clearly.

Director: Richard E. Norman

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Stella Mayo

Run Time: 11 Min (existing)

You can watch it for free: here.

Phantom (1922)

For the last movie I review on this site in 2022, I decided to go with an example of German Expressionism in a non-supernatural-horror setting, created by Expressionist master Friedrich Murnau. It also turned out to be an excellent opportunity to look at some of what was going on in the world about one century ago and how it affected film making.

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“Phantom” begins by showing us the author, Gerhart Hauptmann, carrying a book on a rustic road and looking into the camera. Hauptmann was one of the foremost champions of “Naturalism” – a pre-Expressionist literary and theatrical movement that favored realistic dialogue and embraced scientific theory and social commentary. He’d been writing since the 19th Century, and appears here as an elder, but still fit, scholarly type with receding hairline and tweed jacket.  The credits resume after this brief interlude and the film proper gets going again.

Phantom

Read the rest of this entry »

Georgetown Loop, Colorado

One of many “actualities” from the beginning of the twentieth century that offered to show America to Americans and the world, this movie reflects a rare opportunity to see the West in the movies before fantasy took over. Much longer than movies of only a few years ago, it remains simple in terms of technique and set up.

Georgetown Loop

The camera rushes along a mountain rail line, seeming to soar over forests and rivers, following the track across high bridges and below towering peaks. After a short distance, the train itself comes into view as it proceeds around a bend in the track. We can see the caboose, suggesting that the platform the camera is mounted upon is attached by a cable perhaps ten feet or more long, allowing a complete view of the train under certain circumstances. Seemingly all of the passengers in the rear cars are waving white handkerchiefs out the windows on the left side of the train, waving, as it were, at the audience. A conductor stands on the back of the final car and is especially vigorous and visible in his waving. Even when the passengers seem to tire of it, or when he has to lean dangerously far off the side to be seen, he keeps waving. At one point, the train goes underneath a trestle bridge while another train passes above, but the camera remains focused on the wavers. The terrain becomes rocky, the train barely missing boulders that have been blasted out to make way for the track, and the conductor is now hanging off the side in what seems a decidedly perilous manner as we go by a rail worker standing by the side of the tracks. Now a mountain village becomes visible, as the camera turns to pay more attention to the surroundings than the train. Houses loom up and we roll past warehouses and other commercial buildings. A church spire is visible in the distance. Still, whenever the train turns, we see the passengers endlessly waving, right up to the end of the film.

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It’s interesting that someone thought seeing Coloradans wave would be more interesting than just looking out at a vista of Colorado. This may have been done to add “human interest,” or it may have been calculated to give the audience something more to focus on than just the scenery, which is all you usually get in a “panorama” film like this. It’s especially surprising to a modern audience when we glimpse the second train on the bridge above, only to lose sight of it and stay focused on the wavers. I suspect this is because the tripods used at the time didn’t allow for enough “tilt” to keep it in view as the train went underneath. The conductor seems to have been especially dedicated to the waving principle, we can sometimes see him glance over his shoulder to make sure he’s not the only one waving. His uniform is distinctive and similar to what would be seen in later years; we also see a woman in a heavy, non-revealing outfit with a large hat, pretty much the style in 1903.

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown. Some Internet sources claim Billy Bitzer, but this is not confirmed in his autobiography or any reliable source I can find.

Run Time: 3 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music)

 

 

Blood and Sand (1922)

Happy Silent Movie Day, everyone. Well, this post was originally going to be put up on September 29, “Silent Movie Day,” as part of the blogathon hosted by Silentology. As it happens, the 29th was also “silent moving day” for me – I relocated 250 miles north. For that reason, this post wound up getting delayed until now. Anyway, around here every day is silent movie day!

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Rudolph Valentino remains a phenomenon, almost 100 years after his death. He wasn’t the first male film celebrity, but he is one of the first to have spawned a “cult” of fascination that seems to transcend time and space. Some people just fall completely in love with him, his face, his acting, the very idea of Valentino makes some go weak in the knees. This isn’t his “big breakout” movie (that honor belongs to “The Sheik”), but it’s a solid example of the kind of romantic role he was famous for, and very good at. Being set in Spain, it also reinforces the concept of Valentino as a “Latin Lover.” Let’s dive in and see what it holds!

Blood and Sand Read the rest of this entry »

Nosferatu (1922)

It looks like this year I may only have time to present a single entry to my “History of Horror” for October, but that one is a doozy! Profoundly influential, in its day controversial, and still significant, we will take a look at Friedrich W. Murnau’s vampire film, which could even qualify as the first indisputable horror film this project has discovered.

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The first intertitle to this movie tells you that something a bit unusual is at work, in that it is written in the first-person, as if the story is being told to us by an individual author. Some English prints attribute this to a historian named “Johann Cavallius,” but more authentic prints put it under the header “an Account of the Great Death in Wisborg,” sans author’s name (note that the same prints that give this name tend to follow conventions of Stoker’s novel in naming characters – Hutter is “Jonathan Harker,” etc. I will stick to the names from the Murnau script for this review). Whoever our author is, he or she has a propensity for dramatic statements about “deathbirds” or chilled blood, though what is introduced is homey enough as we see young Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) with his wife Ellen (Greta Schröder), living a comfortably bourgeois life with a garden in this fictional town. Hutter, however, works for an unscrupulous real estate agent named Knock (Alexander Granach), who has decided to sell the grim-looking empty house across from Hutter to a mysterious Count Orlok who comes “from the land of phantoms and thieves.” He assigns Hutter to travel there to meet Orlok and close the deal.

Nosferatu1 Read the rest of this entry »

Do-Re-Mi-Boom! (1915)

Chester Conklin plays a typical Keystone tramp in this Mack Sennett comedy from the year after Charlie Chaplin left the studio. He brings none of the sympathy Chaplin did (although Chaplin’s Keystone roles were his least sympathetic as well), and the movie hinges on increasingly madcap action for laughs.

Do Re Mi Boom

The movie begins with Conklin listening to the piano playing of Vivian Edwards, standing outside her window, dubiously trespassing on her property and peeping in at her. He is so moved by her playing that he starts to sing along, which causes her to come and speak with him, apparently unconcerned about his creepy behavior and odd appearance. Her music teacher (Charles Arling) now arrives and a rivalry is established. Arling quite reasonably takes offense at Conklin’s behavior, and drives him away with threats. He then remonstrates with Vivian not to encourage unhoused individuals to hang about her window making moony eyes at her, but soon engages in a bit of his own sexual harassment toward his pupil. Conklin wanders into the park, and sees an organ-grinder (Harry Booker) with his monkey attracting a crowd. This gives him the good idea to steal the organ and monkey for himself. The organ grinder is understandably upset by this, and being a swarthy foreigner in a Keystone film, naturally avails himself of an anarchist bomb. Conklin attempts to serenade his ostensible sweetie outside her window with the organ, which results in Arling coming out and giving him what for. Arling wins the fight and chucks Conklin into a trash can, where the foreigner tosses his bomb. Luckily, it has quite a long fuse and Conklin is able to put it out in time.

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Now armed with the bomb himself, Conklin gets a new idea and follows the music teacher back to his hotel. Despite behaving an a very conspicuous manner and being asked to leave by the desk clerk, he is able to sneak up to Arling’s room and gain entry while he is out. He has the clever idea to hide the bomb inside his piano, rigged to ignite when certain notes are played. However, before he can effect an escape, Arling returns with Vivian and they sit down to another lesson. Conklin, trapped behind the piano, can do nothing but gesture in a panic. Now the monkey climbs up to the window, perhaps seeking Conklin who was his last owner. He jumps on the piano and it starts to smoke, now Conklin jumps out and tells them a bomb is inside. Together, they all push the piano out the window, but Conklin falls out with it and soon he and the monkey are barreling down the street on top of a runaway piano while the fuse grows shorter and shorter. The organ grinder sees them and gives chase, perhaps demanding the return of his monkey (or his bomb), while Arling and Vivian watch from the window. The bomb explodes, apparently resolving the issue and the survivors kiss.

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Watching something like this today, I can sympathize with critics of the day who called the movies “vulgar.” That’s not the word I would choose, but this is certainly pretty low-brow and low in production value. There’s little effort at characterization or story, just escalating zaniness and social cliché. There’s really no one to identify with here, except maybe the monkey – the two rivals are equally violent and inappropriate, one just happens to be in poorer clothing than the other, the foreigner is the worst kind of stereotype, and the woman is completely objectified and apparently has no will of her own. Despite a lack of credits, I’ve gone ahead and named her as Vivian Edwards based on a picture from “The Silent Era,” which is usually more reliable than the imdb, which credits her as “Girl in Hotel Lobby.” She was a busy comedienne of the day, and had worked with Chaplin in his time at Keystone, including on “His Prehistoric Past” and “The Masquerader.”

Director: Walter Wright

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Chester Conklin, Vivian Edwards, Charles Arling, Harry Booker, Fred Fishback, Charles Lakin, William Sheer

Run Time: 11 Min, 40 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

National Silent Movie Day Announcement Post

Hello readers. You’ve probably noticed that the Century Film Project has been a bit sparse in new posts this year. Fair warning: it’s probably about to get worse because I’m relocating and re-starting my career in the coming weeks.

But, meanwhile, there is good news!

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On September 29, I plan to participate in the Silent Movie Day Blogathon, hosted by Silentology and In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. I shall be reviewing “Blood and Sand,” directed by Fred Niblo and starring Rudolph Valentino and Nita Naldi. See you then!

The Mystical Flame (1903)

This is a classic example of Georges Méliès filming one of his stage magic acts with a few trick photography effects and calling it a film. Coming the year after “A Trip to the Moon” and other serious efforts like “Robinson Crusoe” it may seem a bit disappointing, but surely this is where the steady income came from for Star Films.

Mystical Flame

Méliès steps onto a stage, with one of his familiar backdrops and picks up a skull that is sitting on a chair, after playing with the jaw for a moment, he tosses it into the air and it becomes a handkerchief. He does various tricks with the handkerchief, turning it into a larger napkin and then a large sheet, from which he summons forth a liveried servant. The servant helps him to bring a large screen onto the stage, and then a stool-like object, which the Star Films catalog describes as a “low table.” He sets fire to the top of the table, and a flame flares up briefly before lowering to reveal the figure of a woman. The woman steps down from the table and Méliès leads her about the stage, then puts her back atop the table. He leaves the stage and the servant professes his love for the woman, who slowly fades away. Méliès returns and chases the servant off, perhaps blaming him for her disappearance, then he tumbles over the chair and disappears himself. The servant rushes to the chair to see where his master has gone, but Méliès re-manifests on the stool/table and grabs him from behind, causing him to disappear in a puff of smoke when he touches the table. He does the same with the chair and finishes the act.

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The flame is only very briefly on stage; it might make as much sense to call this movie “The Mystical Handkerchief” or even “The Skull.” The existing print isn’t that great and I’m sure this is one of those movies that would look better in the original hand-painted color. Still, it gives us a sense of the whimsy and fun that Méliès brought even to simple projects during the peak of his productivity. When in doubt, he could always make someone disappear! The black screen, which serves no obvious purpose, was probably brought in because it was easier to do in-camera effects in front of a neutral black background. The Star Films Catalog refers to the character Méliès plays as a “juggler” though he never juggles anything, and it says he appears “from under the table” although he just fades into existence on top of it.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 2 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music).

The Mark of Zorro (1920)

Douglas Fairbanks is a swashbuckling hero in this first adaptation of the famous novel “The Curse of Capistrano,” published just one year before. Generally seen as the beginning of a new direction in his career, the movie shows us how far cinematic techniques come since his start in 1915 as well.

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The movie begins with intertitles that establish what might be Doug’s ideological stance – that oppressive systems breed their own downfall by causing heroic men to become freedom fighters in the cause of the people. Zorro is presented as such a man, and we see a soldier with a “Z-” shaped scar commiserating with his fellows in a bar. We learn that Zorro punished him for mistreating a local Native American, but also that the situation for the rich is not much better as the Governor imposes such high taxes on Don Carlos, father of Lolita Pulido (Marguerite de le Motte), that he is doomed to lose his lands. We return to the bar, where Sergeant Gonzales (Noah Beery) rails against Zorro and boasts of his prowess with the sword. He insults, but accepts free drinks from Don Diego (Douglas Fairbanks), a foppish, sickly noble. After he leaves, of course, Zorro comes in and defeats Gonzales in a duel, and fights off all of the other soldiers as well, humiliating them and generally wrecking the place.

Mark of Zorro1 Read the rest of this entry »

The Witch’s Revenge (1903)

This short trick film from Georges Méliès takes the basic format of one of his magic shows and integrates it into a plot – a plot that seems to playfully celebrate the diabolical powers of Satanism! Lighthearted and fun, it manages on a small budget to provide almost as much entertainment as one of the longer films he was experimenting with at the time.

Witchs Revenge

The stage is set as the throne room of a medieval King, with a throne and some lesser courtly chairs at one end and a post with chains attached at the other. A backdrop completes the picture, suggesting a large room with a colonnade allowing a view of a city beyond. A man with a beard (played by Méliès)is in chains, dragged in by two guards while another man, evidently the King looks on. The King signals that the bearded man be shackled to the post, but the sorcerer (for he is such) pleads with him for mercy, promising to use his powers to benefit the King. The King, intrigued, agrees and sends the guards out of the room. The sorcerer now summons an imp, who rises from the floor and tumbles, before going off-stage. Moments later, a large portable stage (identified in the Star Films catalog as a “palanquin”) is brought forth. The sorcerer gestures and three women in Greek costumes appear. The sorcerer gestures again and they come to life, now dressed in courtly clothes, one assuming the role of a Queen and the others her ladies-in-waiting. The King takes the Queen by the hand and escorts her to a place of honor near the throne and the ladies take up positions nearby. The sorcerer now begins some tricks to amuse the Court, beginning with a chair that he makes spin in place and hop around. He turns it into a clown that performs some tumbles before becoming a chair once again. The sorcerer sits in the chair and disappears. The King rushes over to investigate, only to find the sorcerer is now in his throne! He summons the guards but the sorcerer turns them into demons, who chain the King to the post that was meant for the sorcerer. The sorcerer takes his crown and his Queen as the King struggles against the chains.

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The French title of this movie is “Le Sorcier” which is why I have described the man with the beard as a sorcerer, but the English title uses the term “witch,” which has come to be associated only with women. This was not always the case, and during the time of the witch trials it could be used to describe a person of either gender who made a pact with the Devil to gain worldly power. In that sense, it works just as well for the condemned magician of this story, who obviously does call upon Hellish powers to usurp the King’s position. Why would Méliès make a movie in which the Devil wins? Well, it’s not the first time there has been some playful blasphemy in a Méliès film, for example in “The Devil in a Convent.” But, I think the explanation here has more to do with the nature of comedy. The movie begins with a man in chains, bullied by guards, and in the power of the King. It’s funniest if that situation is reversed at the end. Think of Charlie Chaplin, and the other “little men” of silent comedy, and how they overcame cops, bosses, waiters, large powerful convicts, and other minions of authority. Here, Méliès is doing the same thing, only in this case the authority is endowed with the Divine Right of Kings, so the element of sacrilege is already there, even without bringing in imps and demons. Méliès takes it one step further, and, this time, unlike in “The Devil in a Covent” or “The Devil and the Statue,” he skips the “squaring-up” at the end and doesn’t have the sorcerer get his due – which would make this a moral lesson, rather than a simple comedy.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès, unknown

Run Time: 3 Min, 22 secs

You can watch it for free: here (no music).