Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Max Learns to Skate (1907)

One of the earliest surviving films of one of the earliest film comedians, this is a fairly simple short about a man’s efforts to learn a simple physical skill – but which takes considerable athletic ability to pull off in a comedic manner. Max Linder succeeds with flying colors in this early outing.

Excited Anticipation

Taken mostly in long shot, this movie consists of just a few sequential scenes, each shot from a stationary camera and lasting several seconds to a minute or more. It begins by establishing a snowy path in a forest, with several people walking along, almost looking like an actuality of France in winter until the star finally approaches close enough to the camera to be recognizable. He stands out from the rest of the characters in the movie by his dandy-ish dress. Most of the men are wearing caps that indicate they are from the working class, while Max sports a shiny top hat. He’s also carrying a pair of skates, designed to be affixed to the bottom of his shoes when he finds a frozen lake. He stops a passerby and asks directions, is pointed the right way and exits, screen left. The next shot shows a table where skaters may check their overcoats and other unneeded items (Max checks his cane, but not his hat). He approaches enthusiastically, and pantomimes his excitement at the opportunity to glide across the ice. The next shot shows wooden chairs where people don their skates, and Max gets one of the local fellows to help him on with his. Next is a shot taken of the shore of the frozen lake, showing Max descending a short plank onto the lake. He is awkward, but stays upright until actually on the ice, where he quickly enters a kind of rapid dance before toppling (and losing his hat). Another local fellow eventually takes pity on him and rights him, giving him his hat back and holding him up as they skate offscreen.

The harsh reality.

The next scene shows Max and his tutor, still arm-in-arm, moving slowly. This shot is taken from the shore and we can now see all the other skaters, out having a grand time. One fellow is on a bicycle. Max eventually feels secure enough to try on his own again and the other fellow skates off. This time, Max is a bit more secure at first, but still wobbles more than he glides, eventually losing his hat again. His effort to recover it results in another pratfall, with him landing on it and crushing it. Another scene of the ice shows Max moving along cautiously, still with the crooked hat, when he is run into by a large child. He runs this kid off angrily, but his buddies show up with snowballs, pelting Max mercilessly. In trying to get away from this assault, Max crashes into another skater who is pushing a lady in a kind of sled-wheelchair. Everyone lands on the ground, and Max, in a fury, is trying to fight with all of them. A skating policeman skates up and removes him from the lake. Max is taken back to the table, where his skates are removed and he retrieves his goods. A final close-up shows Max in tears, his dream of a winter wonderland shattered.

Aftermath

This is a pretty basic film, not especially innovative for 1907, but not bad either. What makes it work is Linder’s screen presence, which keeps the attention and interest of the audience despite the very limited plot and film technique. Max is adorable in the early scenes in which he shows the audience how excited he is to go skating, which makes it all the more effective when he discovers that the sport isn’t as easy as he’d imagined. He only takes four falls, but each is a payoff of some kind of setup, and although we know they’re coming, we don’t know just when. The most surprising is the one where he’s hit from the side, the boy coming in from off camera to crash into him, and this escalates the situation to include others. I wondered, up to that point, if any of the other characters in the movie were “acting,” or whether they were just random people found at the location, behaving naturally. Once Max starts fighting them, we know it’s been set up, but the movie overall feels decidedly natural and unrehearsed. It’s worth noting that what I’ve called a “close-up” at the end of the film is more of a medium-shot, much further back than the camera got to the bandit at the end of “The Great Train Robbery.” It’s possible that the cameraman at Pathé was a bit skeptical of this new-fangled idea, and not willing to take it so far. We can still see enough of Max’s tears that it works, though.

Director: Louis J. Gasnier

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Max Linder

Run Time: 5 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

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One touch of Nature (1917)

This is an apparently incomplete fragment of a longer story produced as a feature for Edison late in their production career. It tells a familiarly heart-warming story about a baseball player, using real locations and players to give verisimilitude to the melodrama.

The excerpts begin by introducing John J. McGraw, the real-life manager of the New York Giants, who is talking to a recruiter who has seen an amazing player named Bill Cosgrove (John Drew Bennett). McGraw seems skeptical at reports of the boy’s prowess, but agrees to give him a try. We then jump to the “deciding game of a world’s series” in which the Giants are playing against Philadelphia. McGraw looks on stoically as the seats of the Polo Grounds swell with fans. Read the rest of this entry »

Hearts and Diamonds (1914)

This short “Bunnyfinch” from Vitagraph packs quite a lot into its half-hour run time: comedy deception, mistaken identity, generational conflict, and, oh yes, baseball, are all represented. Stars John Bunny and Flora Finch were at the height of their fame at the time: probably better-known than that Chaplin fellow still making one-reelers over at Keystone.

The movie begins with Bunny, as “Widower Tupper,” learning that a wealthy widow (Finch) will be coming to town and devising a plan to woo her. First, he has to kick out his own young daughters (Ethel Lloyd and Ethel Corcoran), since for some reason he thinks he’ll do better if he pretends to be single. However, on arriving home, he finds them entertaining a group of “young bloods” (college boys with various musical instruments), so he rages at the boys and throws them out, breaking various objects in the process. Then he makes the girls pack and takes them over to the very deaf Uncle William (William Shea). Once he manages to make William understand the situation, William’s butler shows them to their rooms. Read the rest of this entry »

How the Office Boy Saw the Ball Game (1906)

This is an incomplete short from Edison that features a baseball game and was tied in to a publicity stunt involving teams from New York and Pittsburgh. What we see leaves a certain amount to be desired, but it does illustrate the transitional period from “Attractions” to “Nickelodeons.”

The movie opens on a very stage-like office set, with a short man pantomiming a baseball game to a woman sitting behind a typewriter. The man, apparently the “office boy” of the title, ceases his antics when another man comes in, who gives the woman, evidently a secretary or stenographer, an affectionate peck. Then an older man with white hair walks in, and the office boy hands him a note. An insert shot shows us that his note says that his grandmother is dead, and he should come home immediately, so the boss dismisses him for the day. When his back is turned, the office boy gives his co-workers a triumphant laugh. The scene lingers for a few extra seconds, as if something more will happen, but it does not in the surviving print. Instead, we cut to our office boy sitting on top of a telephone pole, brandishing a telescope, apparently in order to see the big game. We cut between shots of what he is seeing (framed with an “iris” around the lens to make a circular image as we would expect to see through a telescope) and shots of his reactions, which are often enthusiastic enough to nearly unseat him from his perch. The telescope footage begins with scenes of baseball players being driven onto the field in contemporary automobiles, then images of a marching band on the field, and it moves into what seem to be mostly warm-up plays or plays staged specifically for the camera. We also see the office boy’s co-workers in the stand, and they seem to be getting chewed out by the boss, who is sitting behind them, but no clear logic for this is in the surviving footage, and indeed the shots of the boss arriving and his yelling at them seem to be in the wrong order. The footage ends with a shot of the scoreboard.

The blog “Baseball Researcher” has filled in a lot of the details of this movie, including a lot of factual information about the location and teams that add to our understanding of this footage. First, the plot seems to be obscured here, but we are meant to understand that the secretary and the office worker made an excuse to leave early as well, while the boss decided that if no work was getting done anyway, he might as well go to the game, only to find his idle workers playing hooky at the field! Thus, the sneaky office boy gets the pleasure of watching his rude co-workers take the punishment he also deserves. Next, these observations confirm my suspicion that most of the playing we see is staged; although movie cameras at ball games weren’t exactly new, the Edison photographers had probably learned that with the limited length of film reels in those days, the chances of catching a good play “by chance” were pretty slim. It also describes a screening of the film for the two ball teams in the evening on a rooftop of a “legitimate” theater, which strikes me as a very intentional “attraction”-style stunt to get some press coverage for the film, and maybe as repayment to the players for staging the scenes for them. By 1906 standards, this is a pretty simplistic film, at least to judge from what we can see, so it probably needed all the promotion it could get to be a big seller. One final note, though this is hardly surprising for the era, is that there is no attempt to line up the angle of the camera with that we would expect to see through a telescope looking from above. All of the shots are taken on the same level as the players and we have to “suspend disbelief” to imagine that the office boy would see it this way.

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Cast: Unknown

Run Time: 5 Min (surviving)

You can watch it for free: here.

The Hayseed (1919)

This small-town comedy from Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s Comique Film Company once again takes various elements from earlier Arbuckle movies, and puts them in a blender with a whole bunch of new and improved gags from him and Buster Keaton, now a fully-fledged sidekick in the company.

The movie starts off by showing us the town general store (which has a large sign: “Why Go to the City to Be Ripped Off? Buy Here Instead”). Keaton is the store’s clerk and Arbuckle is the postman, who also operates out of the store. In an opening gag, Arbuckle is carrying a huge stack of mail and packages out to the buggy he uses for delivery, and he and Keaton collide, sending parcels everywhere. Then they start hitting each other with the discarded mail, until the store owner runs out and breaks it up. Arbuckle jumps in his jalopy and takes off, but most of the mail has been left behind. On his run, Arbuckle throws letters into boxes from a moving cart with remarkable accuracy, but when one is too big to go in the slot, he has to stop. He tries folding it, but it’s still too big so he rips it into small pieces to get it into the box. Read the rest of this entry »

Some words about the Century Awards

Today is the Oscars, and anyone who’s been paying attention has noticed that I never announced any candidates for the Century Awards of 1918. I could just let that pass without comment, but just in case, here are a few words.

It comes down to just one thing: I didn’t watch enough 1918 movies to make it a fair contest. I missed a number of quite large-scale releases, including the #1 box office success. But, more important, in order to really judge what was outstanding for the year, I need to really steep myself in the “other” movies that came out that year, and I didn’t find the time. In general, the rate of my posting is down, and it’s likely to stay that way. I have too many other things (including work!) going on in my life. The Century Awards was a great idea that turned out to be a lot of work every year, and I just couldn’t keep it going.

If anyone’s interested, here’s my biggest thought about 1918: If there had been an Academy Awards (or equivalent), it would have demonstrated the awesome popularity of the four people who formed United Artists the next year: Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, D.W. Griffith and Mary Pickford. Between them, I suspect they’d have had nominations in nearly every category, and probably a fair number of wins as well. No doubt it was this swelling of support that led them to make a go of it as a production company, although the history of UA is fraught with their personal difficulties and over-confidence. (William S. Hart was also involved in the planning of UA, and I expect he’d have been a factor in any fair Awards of the time as well).

A couple of comparative newcomers would probably make some lists as well: Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. Lloyd had been in movies almost as long as Chaplin, but by 1918, he’d gotten out of the “Lonesome Luke” persona and switched over to the now-familiar “glasses” look that made him a comedy icon. Keaton had only been working for Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s Comique Studios for less than a year when 1918 started, but he had rapidly become one of the most important players and behind-the-scenes gag inventors.

With the end of the First World War, 1918 is a kind of turning point in film history as well. It’s the year that Europe looked up and realized that Hollywood was firmly in control of the industry, whatever they might feel about that. Some tried in later years to fight back by establishing nationalized studios (or supporting existing ones), but to a large extent the masses continue to run out to see Hollywood films, no matter how good their own national product was. The nature of silent cinema made this comparably easy – a silent film can be followed by anyone, regardless of their mother tongue, and swapping out translated intertitles is a lot cheaper than dubbing or subtitling a whole movie. But, there was also the economic reality that four years of (mostly) peace had given studios in the US the opportunity to build infrastructure that Europe lost through war and revolution. That included a massive distribution system to over 100 million people that American studios could reach without paying import duties before they even worried about the European market. No European country had anything to compare.

As we continue into 1919, I’ll probably maintain my current rate of one or two posts a week, not all about 1919 because there’s so much “catching up” I still want to do, so it’s likely that I’ll feel the same when we get to Awards time next year. Perhaps I can write up another essay like this one to “take the pulse of the times.” I hope it doesn’t disappoint anyone too much to miss out on the Century Awards, thank you for reading!

Casey at the Bat (1899)

This fragment of a short Edison movie is subtitled “Or, the Fate of a (Rotten) Umpire,” setting up a fan’s violent wish-fulfillment right from the start. While we don’t have the whole thing, what we do see conforms to the simple slapstick of the time.

The camera is placed just behind home plate and to the left, allowing a clear view of the action in a small ball park. A man in a baseball uniform with large sideburns steps up to the plate and swings as the ball flies past. The umpire calls two strikes before “Casey” turns on him and begins to punch him. Soon, several other players from both teams are involved in the melee – mostly apparently trying to pull “Casey” off the hapless referee.

The position of the camera was particularly interesting to me, because it seems that this is the standard one-shot image of a baseball game, in spite of the fact that it puts the camera at some risk of being hit by a bad pitch. It may have already been established by still photographers, or possibly by baseball fans’ consensus that right behind home plate is the best place to watch a ball game. Or, it may just be the best way to frame both pitcher and batter so that the action is central to the screen without panning or switching shots. Other than that there isn’t much to say about this movie – it’s yet another example of a fight being used to generate interest and comedy in early cinema.

Director: James H. White

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 30 secs (surviving)

You can watch it for free: here.

The Busher (1919)

This baseball film from Thomas H. Ince emphasizes small-town values and staying true to your roots as ideals, just as many films about “the Great American Pastime” would do in years to come. It features a young Colleen Moore as the love interest, still a few years away from becoming the national symbol of “flapper” fashion.

The movie begins by introducing us to Ben Harding (played by Charles Ray), a small-time pitcher from Brownville. He is already in his baseball uniform as the movie opens, and we get the idea that he’s pretty devoted, in part because he carries a baseball glove around in his pocket. He tries to sneak past his snoozing father on his way to the ball park, but he drops the chain that fastens the gate to the fence and has to go back and tell him where he’s off to. Dad looks stern, but we can see he’s secretly proud of his son’s talents. Read the rest of this entry »

The Ruse (1915)

This early short starring William S. Hart lacks the complexity of his later features, but still differs from the more generic Westerns of the era by presenting a decidedly unusual storyline for its star. Hart presents a moral tale in which the simple values of the frontier are contrasted with the corrupt climate of the urban Midwest.

The movie opens by introducing the villain (John Davidson), a crooked mine promoter and his innocent stenographer, May Dawson (Clara Williams), who Davidson seems unduly interested in. Then the scene shifts to the West, where Hart as “Bat” Peters rides into town and defends an old drunk against a bully at a bar, then goes to check his mail. He has a letter from the promoter, who is interested in buying his mine. He suggests bringing samples of the ore to Chicago with him. Bat does so, and he and May make eyes at one another when they meet, and she suggests he room at her mother’s boarding house. Meanwhile, the crook decides to swindle Bat out of his mine, and makes plans with a small gang of hoods to pull it off. However, May hears the details of their plan, so she is kidnapped and held in a small room while the plan is put into action. Bat signs over his mine in exchange for cash and a “bogus Westerner” is introduced to show him the town. He is coaxed into a crooked poker game, with the intention of cheating him out of the money he’s been paid for his property. However, Bat sees the others trading cards and holds them at gunpoint. In trying to get out, he stumbles into the room where May is held, and then a fight breaks out as he tries to rescue her. The police, summoned by gunshots and a fire Bat has started, arrive, and take the crooks into custody. Bat and May go back to her mother’s house and he invites her to join him in the clean air of “the only land I understand.” The end.

Pardon me ma’am, but is today the 23rd?

I was a bit surprised to see a story set in Chicago starring William S. Hart. He’s still an upright cowboy though, so I guess it’s OK. It’s sort of a reversal of movies like “Wild and Woolly” where Douglas Fairbanks plays an easterner who goes West to find himself. The director seems to have been concerned that we would lose track of what day it was, because there’s a large calendar on the wall at the office that shows the date clearly, and it changes as the story moves from one day to the next. This movie, like “The Arizona Wooing,” was produced by the New York Motion Picture Company’s “Broncho Films” but there’s no obvious attempt to play on Broncho Billy this time. Hart probably wouldn’t have stood for it, although it occurs to me that Billy’s Essanay Company was located in Chicago, the den of evil in this movie, so there may have been a sly comment at work there. There isn’t much going on with the filmmaking here, mostly pretty standard shots  and editing for the period, although there’s an insert shot during  the poker game of one player’s hand passing a card to another, followed  by a closeup of Hart glaring as this happens, so that at least there’s some use of technique. Bat seems to get off awful easy after shooting several men and starting a fire in the warehouse, but I suppose May’s testimony would have some influence on the police. Anyway, it’s not Hart’s best work, but it’s interesting to see where he came from.

Director: William H. Clifford , William S. Hart

Camera: Robert Doran

Starring: William S. Hart, Clara Williams, John Davidson, Gertrude Clair, Bob Kortman

Run Time: 21 Min

I have not found this movie available online for free. If you do, please comment.

An Arizona Wooing (1915)

This lightweight Western short was evidently intended for children and unsophisticated audiences (the bad guy even wears  black hat!), but it works well enough for the time it was made. It was directed by and stars Tom Mix, one of the biggest Western stars of the silent era.

The movie begins by establishing that Tom Warner (Mix) is rivals with “Mexican Joe” (Pat Chrisman) for the affections of Jean Dixon (Louella Maxam). Jean and Tom are on a date out on the range, and Warner goes to a creek to get Jean some water when Joe rides up. He’s kitted out in Mexican finery, and wears a gun (Tom does not). He immediately starts harassing Jean, insisting that she come with him and Tom runs back over and punches him, sending him packing. Next, it is established that Tom is a sheep farmer in cattle country by showing scenes of Tom nursing a baby sheep with a bottle. Jean’s father, Thomas Dixon (William Brunton), gets together with a bunch of other cattle ranchers to write Tom a note saying he needs to stop raising sheep, or else. He responds by asking Jean to meet him at the corral, which angers Mr. Dixon still more. He meets up with Jean, they exchange pleasantries and kiss, and as soon as she’s gone a group of about seven ranchers set upon Tom and tie him up. They ride out to a bluff and tie Tom to the ground, warning him that he’ll stay that way until he agrees to give up sheep farming. The next morning Mexican Joe rides up and slaps Tom in the face now that he’s helpless. Jean comes along and remonstrates with Joe, which results in him kidnapping her. Mr. Dixon now rides out to the bluff to give Tom some food (he’s not heartless) and Tom tells him what’s happened. Mr. Dixon frees Tom and rides off to round up a posse. Tom is able to get to his horse and gallops out to the parson’s, where the Mexican was just minutes away from marrying Jean. He runs as soon as he sees Tom, but Tom lassos him and drags him back to the posse, who take him away. Jean and Tom embrace while Mr. Dixon looks approvingly on, apparently now reconciled to having some sheep on the range.

Just looking at the names in the title credits, I knew who was going to win, even before I noticed that Warner was played by Mix. The movie has no surprises in terms of race, although for half a second I thought Mexican Joe might be decent and free Tom when he found him tied up. I should have known better. The sheep/cattle issue is simplified to a point of being ridiculous, although it seems to have been an excuse to include some cute images of baby sheep, maybe for the littler kids. This is the first Tom Mix movie I’ve reviewed on this blog, I believe, and he lives up to his reputation for providing very simple, super-clean Westerns with action and moral plots. I actually hadn’t known his career started this early, since one usually hears him mentioned in connection with the 1920s, but evidently he worked at Selig from at least 1910 to 1917.

Director: Tom Mix

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Tom Mix, Louella Maxam, Pat Chrisman, William Brunton, Sid Jordan

Run Time: 15 Min

I have not found this movie available for free on the Internet. If you have, please comment.