Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

The Infernal Cauldron (1903)

Alternate Titles: The Infernal Caldron and the Phantasmal Vapors, Le Chaudron infernal

This short trick film from Georges Méliès continues my “history of horror” for October, 2018. Now 115 years old, it shows that some of the effects of cinema have aged well.

Méliès, dressed as a demon (the Star Films catalog informs us he is “Belphegor, executioner of Hell”), dances in front of a large boiling cauldron, on a set dressed like a Renaissance castle, with leering devil masks on the walls. Three women (two apparently dressed as men, wearing swords) are led into the chamber, and one at a time thrown into the pot. Another demon comes forth to stir the pot and Belphegor makes some magical gestures, producing more smoke. Suddenly, the smoke resolves itself into three ghostly figures, which fly about the room over Belphegor’s head, evidently frightening him. The ghosts turn into fireballs which whip around the room. Méliès leaps into the cauldron after they have disappeared, and the cauldron and demon disappear in a puff of smoke.

Although it looked to me as if the victims were having their revenge (in a plot reminiscent of “The Golden Beetle” by Segundo de Chomón), the Star Films catalog suggests a different narrative, more in line with Catholic theology. The condemned souls have been separated from their bodies by the cauldron, and at the end Belphegor turns them into Will-O-The-Wisps, “who must forever remain with the vast concourse of Satan’s victims.” The disappearance of Belphegor at the end is apparently voluntary, since his work is now complete. The catalog also makes quite a big deal about the transparent flying ghosts, calling it, “A very fascinating and absolutely new trick.” There have been some ghosts in Méliès before this, including the semi-transparent one in “A Fantastical Meal,” but these spirits do seem somewhat more nebulous and sophisticated to me. I would imagine that producing an effect for the audience was ultimately more Méliès’s interest than making a coherent or spiritually consistent storyline.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 1 Min, 45 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

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The Infernal Cake-Walk (1903)

Alternate Titles: Le Cake-walk infernal

With October now well under way, it’s time to return to my traditional “history of horror” posts. For this outing, I’ve chosen a short dance movie from Georges Méliès which meshes Satanic themes and colonialism.

The movie begins in a cavern with flames shooting up from various places in the floor. A group of young women dressed as demons (perhaps succubi?) dance across the floor, and then some male demons perform tumbling tricks. Soon, a fellow dressed like a biblical prophet appears and chases them all away, but he removes his outer clothes and is revealed to be Satan himself (played by Méliès). First he dances with a fireball in his hand, which grows in proportion until he throws it down. He summons two cake-walk dancers, a black man and woman, who perform their dance and are joined by a group of young women. Now a large cake is brought out by evidently African servants, and a new demon leaps forth from it. This fellow has a humped back and knobby knees, but despite his deformities proves to be an excellent cake-walk dancer. He performs for some time, and during the dance first his legs, then his arms detach themselves and dance independently. He disappears and all of the demons, damned souls, and dancers reappear and dance together on stage until Satan reappears and they vanish in a puff of smoke. Satan disappears through a trap door in the stage.

Because it’s mostly dancing, I was able to summarize the action pretty succinctly, however this is a fairly long movie for Méliès: over five minutes long. Not so long as “A Trip to the Moon,” but well above the earlier 1-2 minute films he was making. There are a number of intriguing aspects. The “female demons” I mentioned above have horns, but their striped costumes made me think of bees. The “male demons” are actually wearing the masks of the Selenites from “A Trip to the Moon” (having gone to the bother of making so many masks, I guess Méliès wanted to get more use out of them). The black dancers appear to be wearing makeup, but from their hair and features I think they may have been actually of African descent, not white Frenchmen in blackface. The cake-bearers are wearing black full-bodysuits, so I think they actually are white people. The Star Film Catalog tells us that the biblical-prophet-looking-guy is really Plato who has returned from a journey to the Earth to show off the cake walk dance. I suppose that Plato has to be in Hell because he was a pagan; Dante places him there in the “Inferno.” Still, it’s interesting that he serves the function of a colonial explorer bringing back exotic foreign dances to Hell. The dancers and cake bearers are to all intents and purposes captured slaves. Since recent analyses of “A Trip to the Moon” have argued that Méliès was making a point about the evils of colonialism, it’s interesting to see this movie as suggesting its origin with the Devil himself. Still, I suspect that for audiences then and today, this is mostly a fun romp of effects and dances.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès, others

Run Time: 5 Min, 20 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

The Centaurs (1918-1921)

This fragment of animation from Winsor McCay is listed as “unreleased, circa 1918-1921” on the “Winsor McCay: The Master Edition” DVD. I’m reviewing it now mostly for convenience’s sake – possibly it would be just as appropriate to treat it as a 1921 film, or to skip it entirely due to its unreleased, incomplete nature.

The movie begins with an image of a pleasant forest. A nude young woman appears to be walking through it, but as she emerges from the leaves, we see that her lower half is that of a horse. She walks into a clearing and picks up some flowers. Now we see a male centaur on a rocky ridge. He throws a rock at a passing buzzard, knocking it from the sky, and calls out. Then the two of them meet, and he greets her affectionately. The two walk off together. These scenes are intercut with images of what seems to be a nude old woman with glasses, but now she emerges from behind a rock and we see that she is also a centaur. She joins an old male centaur with a long white beard and the young male centaur approaches them, then introduces the female. They each greet her with a hug, and then the three stand in a circle as a bald-headed foal centaur enters the scene and prances and does tricks for them. It ends with an image of the upper (human) part of the foal winking at the audience from inside of a heart.

While this may be incomplete, there does seem to be a kind of narrative of young love, courtship, marriage and the cycle of life here. McCay is mostly remembered for whimsical fantasy such as “Little Nemo” or even somewhat satirical pieces as his “Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend” cartoons and movies, but here he seems to be trying for something gentle and poetic. It strikes me that, just as he challenged himself to use film to bring a dinosaur to life in “Gertie the Dinosaur,” here he is demonstrating that mythical creatures can also come to life on film. The animation is still rather simplistic by modern standards, but the use of cel technology allows a somewhat more complete image than we saw in “Little Nemo” or “How a Mosquito Operates.”

Director: Winsor McCay

Camera: Unknown

Run Time: 3 Min

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

The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918)

Winsor McCay, who styled himself the “inventor of animated cartoons,” returns with a much more serious movie than his previous “Little Nemo” and “Gertie the Dinosaur” entries. This time, it’s a propaganda piece about the event that galvanized Americans to war fever – three years after the fact.

As with his previous movies, this begins with some live action images of McCay at work on the project. Although the intertitles make much of the thousands of individual drawings that were created in the making of the film, what we mostly see is McCay researching the event by looking at a big picture of the RMS Lusitania and talking with a man about it. The first bit of animation he shows is simply the ocean waves – an effect he could be justifiably proud of. It looks to me as though he filmed several layers of background waves in order to give the effect of the rolling ocean some degree of three-dimensionality. Then our story begins, with the departure of the Lusitania from port, its sighting of the Irish coast, and the sudden attack of the German U-Boat. We see the explosion and lots of people being lowered in life boats, then a sudden second explosion and the ship’s slow descent into the ocean. All the while, tiny things (presumably human beings) are dropping off of the ship into the ocean. Every now and then we cut to an image of heads bobbing in the water near over-crowded life boats. The intertitles play up the drama and cruelty of the situation, reminding us of mothers drowning with their tiny babies at their breasts, and also showing us a brief gallery of the more famous victims. It ends by reminding us that the Kaiser pinned a medal on the captain of the sub – “AND YET THEY ASK US NOT TO HATE THE HUN.”

In all, the animation of this movie is adequate, but not terribly exciting from a modern standpoint. The print appears in black and white, as opposed to the hand-painted color of parts of “Little Nemo,” and while that adds to the bleak message, it makes for a visually unsatisfying film. The intertitles come across today as highly jingoistic and naïve, although for that generation they were probably very effective. The Lusitania was their 9/11, after all, and Americans were just as shocked and outraged then as they would be eighty six years later. It took Americans longer to get riled up, in those days – it was two whole years before Woodrow Wilson declared war, after Germany announced in 1917 that it would return to unrestricted submarine warfare, despite all diplomatic efforts in the years since the attack. This partly explains the vehemence of McCay’s intertitles: He was still trying to convince isolationists and apologists for Germany that the cause was right (or at least to drown them out with patriotic cheering). It also took him almost two years to complete the movie, so it isn’t as though he got a sudden whim after the US declared war. The film is therefore an interesting piece of the history of animation, and the history of American attitudes toward war, but it’s not the most interesting movie in itself that McCay ever did.

Director: Winsor McCay

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Winsor McCay

Run Time: 12 Min

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

 

The Cook (1918)

This short film from Comique brings Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle back to familiar territory as he plays a food-preparer in a restaurant which devolves into chaos. We saw something similar in “The Waiter’s Ball” (a movie he did at Keystone), and there are other examples, either lost or not-yet reviewed here. This is the first time he’s tackled the subject with his new apprentice, Buster Keaton, however, and this results in some new laughs.

The movie begins with a close-up on Arbuckle’s face, with tears streaming down from his eyes. It cuts back (a little too fast, I think, for the image to fully register), revealing the fact that he is seated with a bowl of onions on his knee, peeling one of them, which is why he’s crying. A quick series of establishing shots show us the dishwasher at work, Luke the Dog nearby, and Buster working as a waiter out in the front. Arbuckle finishes his task and starts chopping at a large leg of lamb or beef with a huge meat cleaver. Out front, Keaton is flirting with the cashier (Alice Lake), and the owner breaks it up, throwing Keaton into the kitchen where he is hit by Arbuckle’s wild cleaver. The two of them take some time to establish that his head is still attached, then the owner shows up and drags Keaton out to attend to customers. This tips off a routine in which Keaton takes an order and yells into the kitchen (the intertitles often give somewhat amusing takes on diner lingo). Arbuckle then draws something out of a faucet from the same pot (coffee, soup, gravy), and off-handedly tosses the result at the door. Keaton walks in at the precise moment and catches the order, flipping it around a couple of times, and then walking out the door to deliver it. Of course, the precision of his catches is established with editing, and the cups, bowls, and plates he flips are empty, but it’s still a fun bit.

After this has gone on for a while, the floor show begins, and a belly dancer performs. Not long after she starts, Keaton does a marvelous parody of her “Egyptian”-style dance, and when Arbuckle sees, it, he has to one-up him. He puts on pots and pans as bangles and does himself up as a belly dancer, then gives an utterly incompetent dance, which draws the attention of the whole restaurant to the kitchen. Amazingly, the owner seems to approve as well, even though Arbuckle breaks a great many cups and plates in his shenanigans.

This is interrupted when Al St. John comes in and forcibly dances with Lake, swinging her around in a kind of “Apache Dance.” He is in possibly his most clownish getup, and seems to be interested in disruption and mashing, though sources list his character as “holdup man” today. When Keaton tries to threaten him with a beer bottle and get him to leave, St John turns the tables from “Out West” (where he was hit on the head with multiple bottles) and hits Keaton, breaking the bottle, but drinking from it anyway, and chewing on the broken glass. When the owner tries to get tough with St. John using a knife from the kitchen, St. John takes it away from him and uses it to cut off the owner’s mustaches. Now Luke the Dog comes out and bites the seat of St. John’s pants, in a scene reminiscent of “Fatty’s Faithful Fido.” He hangs on no matter what Al does to shake him off. Arbuckle separates them and Al flees with Luke in pursuit. Luke chases him all the way out to a rural area and around a barn, ending by chasing him up a ladder.

The action now shifts back to the restaurant, where the staff are enjoying their dinner of spaghetti. The spaghetti scene goes on for a while, with several gags about lengths of spaghetti, people getting opposite ends of the same strand, Arbuckle getting his tie mixed up in his pasta, and people using sheers to cut up their spaghetti. After this goes on for a while, we see Al St. John running up a ladder with Luke in pursuit – only now it’s to the roof of the restaurant! He crashes through the skylight onto the table with the spaghetti, and the Al vs. The Staff War ends in his ignominious defeat.

The next scene shows the staff going on their day off. Everyone gets out of uniform, and Arbuckle (of course!) pulls his street clothes out of that same pot that earlier produced ice cream, milk, coffee, etc. He also takes a ridiculously long pole with him, for no clear reason. The gang is all now on a boardwalk in a location that looks like Coney Island. Buster and Alice are at “Goatland” where they rent a cart drawn by goats, but Buster falls out and mostly the ride is a series of pratfalls. Arbuckle has a similar cart, but when he rounds a corner, his pole knocks over two policemen and he is quickly in trouble. He and Luke head to the seashore, where he uses his pole to catch a large fish at sundown (very nice silhouette photography here), but despite his and Luke’s best efforts, that one gets away.

Um, why, exactly?

Alice Lake gets onto a roller coaster and suddenly Al St. John is again in pursuit. She makes a spectacular dive from the top of the tracks into the ocean, and is soon splashing around calling for rescue. Arbuckle witnesses this and runs over, as does Keaton. They fight over various bits of rope and chained-down life preservers, while Luke again pursues St. John on the tracks. Keaton and Arbuckle finally get their rope to the dock area, but both end up falling in rather than saving Lake. The End.

This is probably the most plotless of the Comique movies I’ve seen, but it’s also one of the funniest. There are dozens of gags I left out of the summary above – describing them wouldn’t do them justice anyway – and the whole thing just hangs together better than some of the more easy-to-follow storylines. I think it’s largely a question of timing. Keaton and Arbuckle (and the rest of the gang) don’t ever let up, and just when you think you just saw the funniest thing ever, they throw something new at you. All that zaniness just didn’t leave any time for a plot! I’ve mentioned several bits that were recycled from earlier movies, but they’re done better here, and serve mostly to demonstrate that Arbuckle kept refining his craft as he progressed.

Bara as Salome

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There are bits that probably worked better at the time. Arbuckle and Keaton’s belly dances (especially Arbuckle’s) are deliberate parodies of the famous sexy dance Theda Bara did in “Salomé,” which is now a presumed-lost film that no one’s seen in living memory. You can see that Arbuckle’s pots-and-pans get-up is a takeoff on the one Bara wore in the posters, but it had to be more hilarious to an audience that had thrilled to it for real on the screen. The “Goatland” thing goes totally over my head, but I enjoyed it anyway. I think if I were going to recommend a “starting place” for someone new to Arbuckle/Keaton/Comique, I’d tell them to start with “The Cook” and then probably “The Bell Boy” and “Out West.” If those aren’t working, I’d say skip the rest, it doesn’t get any better.

Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Camera: George Peters

Starring: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, Al St. John, Alice Lake, Glen Cavender, Luke the Dog

Run Time: 18 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Moonshine, take two

I predicted that I would probably find a longer version of this movie when I reviewed it last week and as it turned out, there was already one in my house at the time. I’m not really surprised, but I’m sort of glad I started with the shorter fragment first. This one has more of the story (still not quite everything, I suspect, based on the length), but is a much worse print. This version is from the “Buster Keaton Short Films” collection, also released by Kino, if anyone’s keeping score.

This one begins with a somewhat longer demonstration of the Bootleggers’ secret hideout and an intertitle that explains it was “the director’s idea” (one of many reflexive jokes in the titles). Next, we see “Jud Grew” (actually Charles Dudley) as the lead moonshiner, who guns down a “revenuer” at a distance and praises the stunt in the intertitles. Next is the scene introducing Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Buster Keaton as the chief revenuer and his lieutenant, respectively. It’s not much longer than the first one, but does include a shot of Buster getting pitched from the automobile and an intertitle comment about Arbuckle’s “dirty pants.” The extra footage also introduces Arbuckle’s monocle, which is something of a recurring gag in the rest of the movie. Once they’ve tumbled off the cliff, Arbuckle digs Keaton out from the sand, then take him over to the river to wash him out. He hangs him on a tree by his feet to dry, then goes off by himself.

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Moonshine (1918)

This is a review of a fragment, rather than a complete movie. The fragment was preserved in the Cineteca Nazionale in Italy and presented by Kino on DVD, which is the version I have seen. I’m not certain, but I think a more complete copy may have since been discovered; if I ever get a chance to see that version, I will post a complete review.

The movie is directed by Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle for his Comique Film Company and stars him and Buster Keaton as treasury agents investigating a moonshine-operation in the hills of Kentucky. Al St. John is one of the moonshiners. We see the hillbillies operate a complicated camouflage device by pushing a stone with their feet, and a side of a hill opens up to reveal a still. Arbuckle drives up in a car at another location, and takes in the lay of the land from a rather precarious-looking rock outcropping. He orders Keaton to call for reinforcements, and in what I believe is the longest-surviving scene, we see dozens of armed men emerge from the back of the car, clown-car style. It looks to me as if this effect was accomplished through masking one side of the car and having the men run through it, not by editing. There is one jump cut towards the end, but the rest of the action is smooth. Once about forty men are assembled, Keaton leads them in a group off screen. Arbuckle tells him to have them hide, and they rush off into the woods. Then Keaton joins Arbuckle on the rock, and shenanigans ensue as they struggle not to fall off in a series of pratfalls. Eventually, they both slide down what seems a rather less-dangerous rock face, Keaton with Arbuckle’s pants now in his possession.

A very brief clip introduces “Alice, the Bootlegger’s Daughter” (Alice Lake), the love interest. Al St. John is “a tenacious suitor” in whom she has no real interest. An intertitle tells us that her father is upset at her for spurning the suitor, and we see a wild-eyed man rush around a little, then grab her and beat her with a stick. A rather long intertitle describes the first meeting of “Fatty” and Alice – apparently he sides with the father and she falls for his “authoritarian charm.” We see Alice plunged backwards into a stream and then a scene with her kissing Arbuckle, that cuts off very suddenly. The next title tells us that “Fatty” discovers the bootleggers’ den, but is quickly captured. What we see is Arbuckle drinking from a tin cup, standing in a dark cave-like room, and a bunch of armed hillbillies rushing in to surround him. Keaton runs out of a door in the hill and observes Arbuckle being led away. Then he notices that Al St. John has got the drop on him. Keaton accidentally sneezes some tobacco in Al’s eye, and carefully gives Al back his gun, which he had dropped, making sure to keep it pointed at himself while Al clears out his eye.

Fatty’s imprisonment, we are told, is in “a comfortable room being looked after by Alice.” We see a glimpse of him looking around and putting his feet up in a surprisingly well-appointed home, which then cuts to the bootleggers in a more appropriately shack-like environment, evidently the ground-level part of the same house (Arbuckle is in the basement). They are all wearing tuxedos when they sit down to dinner. Arbuckle has a tray wheeled in by Alice, who is in an evening dress, and who then goes to join the bootleggers. Arbuckle conceives a plan to escape: he pours ketchup over his face and fires a gun to simulate his own suicide. The bootleggers carry him out to the river, apparently without noticing that he’s still alive, and dump him in. Alice seems very upset. There’s a scene of Arbuckle and Keaton meeting up, but quickly running away when Al St. John drops from a tree with a rifle and starts shooting. We see Keaton do one last pratfall and “The End” comes up.

It’s hard to comment much further on this movie, based on what we have. I think the intertitles make up at least a third of the running time, so you’re mostly reading a silent movie here. Arbuckle, St. John, and Keaton are all in good form, but we don’t get a real sense of how much time each one gets to develop their characters. I’m not even 100% sure that St. John is really one of the bad guys here, he may be sort of a loose cannon (isn’t he always?). Anyway, there are some amusing moments, especially in the longer scenes near the beginning, and a lot of good location work.

Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Camera: George Peters

Starring: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, Alice Lake, Al St John, Joe Bordeaux, Charles Dudley

Run Time: 6 min, 30 secs (fragment of a two-reel movie)

You can watch it for free: here.

The Bell Boy (1918)

This short comedy from Comique stars Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Buster Keaton at the height of their collaboration, giving them a new occupation to demolish – hotel management. The use of large indoor sets and outdoor locations gives them some good opportunities for creative chaos.

Arbuckle and Keaton are uniformed bell boys at the Elk’s Head Hotel, which is managed by Al St. John. We first see Arbuckle emerging from an elevator and looking around carefully, before he protrudes a cigarette from inside of his mouth and smokes it. Keaton is lazing on an easy chair when Al rings the bell and both men hasten to the front. They zip up the stairs to the two visible doors and come out carrying bags. They take them out, leading the two guests to a horse-drawn streetcar, but when Arbuckle tries to throw one of his suitcases on top of the vehicle, it misses and hits Buster, causing the first of many pratfalls. They load up the carriage, the guests get on board, and Al gets into the driver’s seat, driving the contraption down the street and past the “Last National Bank” (remember that one).

 

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The Dream (1911)

This short film from IMP (the predecessor to Universal Pictures) is a simple morality tale about a philandering husband’s comeuppance. It is probably known today mostly because of starring a young Mary Pickford along with her then-husband Owen Moore.

The film begins by depicting a drunk couple out together in a restaurant. The man (Moore) staggers around and hands the waiter all of the money in his wallet. In the midst of their carousing, we briefly cut away to images of a woman (Pickford) sitting dejectedly at home alone, with dinner waiting on the table. She doses off for a moment, and checking the time, determines that it is getting quite late. An intertitle informs us that the husband returns six hours later, but the wife doesn’t seem angry or concerned, just happy to see him. That quickly changes as he yells at her, throwing the food she made on the floor and turning over a chair before passing out on a divan. She seems very upset by his behavior. Read the rest of this entry »

Amarilly of Clothes Line Alley (1918)

Mary Pickford gets to play an adult girl in this movie with a screenplay by her buddy, Frances Marion, who wrote child roles for her in “The Little Princess,” “Poor Little Rich Girl,” and other films. As in those movies, much of the emphasis here is on a contrast between the rich and the poor, with a sense that poverty and honesty are linked, as are wealth and decadence.

The movie begins, like many of the period, with an extensive introduction to the cast of characters. In addition to Mary in the title role of Amarilly Jenkins, we also meet her mother (Kate Price) and brothers, and her boyfriend, Terry (William Scott), who works as a bartender in a big nightclub in Clothes-Line Alley. On the “other side of the tracks,” are the Society people, represented by Mrs. Philips (Ida Waterman) and her nephew Gordon (Norman Kerry). Gordon has a friend with the auspicious name of Johnny Walker (Fred Goodwins), who he spends time with drinking at the athletic club, and who appears to sleep at Gordon’s studio.  Mrs. Philips wants to set up her nephew with a debutante (Margaret Landis), but Gordon keeps putting off her invitations – apparently he prefers spending time with Johnny for now.

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