Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

January and February 1918

I let January slip by without posting the Century News, so I’m mixing two months into this one post. After more than three years of nonstop bloodshed, hope and despair are both at all-time highs. With the collapse of the Russian Empire, there’s unrest spreading on both sides, breaking out into declarations of independence, mutinies, and strikes. There’s also the Americans on the way, and the German populace is captivated by the promises made by Woodrow Wilson on the floor of Congress. To make matters worse, a major epidemic is about to begin that kills more people than the war itself. Let’s take a look at the headlines from a century ago:

Trenches on the shore of the Dead Sea.

World War I:

The SS Tuscania is torpedoed off the Irish coast on February 5; it is the first ship carrying American troops to Europe to be torpedoed and sunk.

Capture of Jericho on February 19 by the Egyptian Expeditionary Force begins the British occupation of the Jordan Valley.

The Imperial Russian Navy evacuates Tallinn through thick ice over the Gulf of Finland during February 19-25.

Kurt Eisner

Political unrest:

Kurt Eisner, leader of the Bavarian Independent Socialists (USPD) leads an anti-war march and is arrested and imprisoned for treason. He will be jailed almost up to the end of the war.

The Cattaro Mutiny sees Austrian sailors in the Gulf of Cattaro (Kotor), led by two Czech Socialists, mutiny.

 

Demonstrators in Estonia

Russian Revolution:

The Finnish Declaration of Independence is recognized by Russia, Sweden, Germany and France on January 4.

Russian Constituent Assembly proclaims Russian Democratic Federative Republic on January 19, but is dissolved by Bolshevik government on same day.

The Ukrainian People’s Republic declares independence from Bolshevik Russia on January 22.

The Council of Lithuania adopts the Act of Independence of Lithuania, declaring Lithuania’s independence from the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic on February 16.

Estonia declares independence, February 24. German forces capture Tallinn on the next day.

Diplomacy:

Woodrow Wilson delivers his Fourteen Points speech on January 8.

 

Colonialism:

U.S. troops engage Yaqui Indian warriors in the Battle of Bear Valley in Arizona on January 9, a minor skirmish and one of the last battles of the American Indian Wars between the United States and Native Americans

Finland:

Finland enacts a “Mosaic Confessors” law on January 12, granting Finnish Jews civil rights.

Finnish Civil War begins with the Battle of Kämärä on January 27.

Naval Construction:

The keel of HMS Hermes is laid in Britain on January 15, the first purpose-designed aircraft carrier to be laid down.

Culture:

The Historic Concert for the Benefit of Widows and Orphans of Austrian and Hungarian Soldiers at the Konzerthaus, Vienna on January 18.

Disease:

“Spanish ‘flu” (influenza) first observed in Haskell County, Kansas.

Suffrage:

Women’s suffrage in the United Kingdom: Representation of the People Act gives most women over 30 the vote.

Extinction:

The last captive Carolina parakeet (the last breed of parrot native to the eastern United States) dies at the Cincinnati Zoo on February 21.

Joseph Kaufman

Deaths:

Joseph Kaufman, actor (in “The Sporting Duchess” and “The Song of Songs”), on February 1.

Births:

John Forsythe, actor (in “The Trouble with Harry” and “Kitten with a Whip”), January 29.

Ida Lupino, actress, director and producer (made “The Hitch-Hiker,” starred in “They Drive by Night”), February 4.

Patty Andrews, singer (of the Andrews Sisters), February 16.

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Wanted: A Nurse (1915)

This short comedy from the team of Mr. & Mrs. Sidney Drew plays on stereotypes about nurses – but also pokes fun at the men who promote those stereotypes. While it’s not an especially sophisticated example of situational comedy, it does once again demonstrate that slapstick wasn’t the only option available to the silent comedian.

Sidney plays J. Robert Orr, a seemingly idle rich “club man” who spends his evenings in card games. One day, while walking down the street, he witnesses man having a medical emergency, which is attended to by a pretty young nurse, Helen Worth (Mrs. Drew). They exchange glances, but soon the ambulance arrives and she is whisked away. Orr is so obsessed with her that the four queens in his hand turn into images of the nurse. He fixes himself a drink and comes up with a plan, suddenly throwing himself across the table, convincing his friends that he needs medical attention. He is taken to the hospital, but when the doctor comes in to examine him, he cries, “I don’t want a doctor, I want a NURSE!” However, Helen is out of the hospital right now, attending a serious case. So, several other nurses are sent in, one at a time. Each of them is ugly, fat, old, or mannish, and he is increasingly agitated. Finally, he dresses as  a nurse to escape via the fire escape, and returns to the club. His friends now think he has gone nuts, so they take him to another doctor, who pronounces that he has “nurse-itis.” He goes to get Helen to help attend the case, and Orr hides beneath the covers, terrified of what he may see. When he sees it is her, he softens and smiles. A quick edit covers his recuperation, and he proposes to the girl, who gladly accepts. The end.

The fact that the stars really were married may have helped soften the blow of this premise of this movie, which essentially involves a man stalking a girl he saw once and ignoring the professional qualifications of her and her colleagues, seeing them only as “ugly” or “pretty.” For modern viewers, however, it doesn’t help that Sidney is a good 20 years older than his wife (whose name I always think of as “Nancy,” for obvious reasons, but it was really “Lucille”). He does a pretty good freak out over the disappointment, and one does laugh a bit at his antics, but as I said, it’s not terribly witty. The movie also cross-cuts between his torment and Helen’s actual work, but this serves no obvious purpose, except to remind the audience of the real object of his quest. Certainly not the worst movie of 1915, but not the best, either.

Director: Sidney Drew

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Sidney Drew, Lucille Drew, Ethel Lee, Mary Maurice

Run Time: 12 Min

I have not found the whole move for free on the Internet. You can watch a short clip of it: here.

Best Costume Design 1917

As with makeup and hair, we’re seeing costumes becoming increasingly sophisticated throughout the film industry as time goes by as well. In the earliest years, actors wore whatever they had at hand, and only for period dramas was there much effort to raid the wardrobes of theatrical companies. But, as Charlie Chaplin proved in 1914, having the right clothes on can make all the difference for a character in any time and place. Stars and character actors found that costume was especially important in the silent cinema, when all information about their characters had to be transmitted visually.

This year, Douglas Fairbanks shows up in two of our nominations. In “Wild and Woolly,” he plays a Western-obsessed Easterner, who convinces a whole town in Arizona to stage a kind of Wild West LARP session for him to get his father to build a railroad. In “A Modern Musketeer,” he plays a similar role, this time obsessed with the works of Alexandre Dumas, and the movie begins with him in an elaborate swashbuckler getup. Mary Pickford was always very conscious of her clothes, but as the rambunctious title character in “A Poor Little Rich Girl,” she transformed into a little girl who dresses up as a little boy as well. The “Judex” serial also gave a wonderful example of the use of costume to transform, perhaps inventing the first costumed super hero in its lead character, and his stylish cape and hat are put to excellent use in “The Tragic Mill,” which also sees Musidora in a bathing suit!

The nominees for best costumes of 1917 are:

  1. Poor Little Rich Girl
  2. The Tragic Mill (Judex)
  3. A Modern Musketeer
  4. Wild and Woolly

And the winner is…

“The Tragic Mill!”

While it’s not as iconic as Charlie’s “little tramp” outfit, the “Judex” costume influenced early heroes like the Shadow and Batman, whose dark sensibilities seem to have come back into fashion with audiences of the twenty first century.  Judex looks particularly striking as he navigates a motor boat down a river in his cape and hat, on his way to rescue his beloved Jacqueline from the clutches of the baddies, and we also see him take off his “Vallieres” disguise and become his secret identity in this episode.

Best Makeup and Hairstyling 1917

Makeup and hair styles of the movies both reflect, and to some degree determine, the styles of the day. As we move into the Silent Classical Era, the importance of the close-up and the growing star system assures an increased focus on having actors who look “just right” for their roles. Not only for beautiful leading ladies, but also for villains and those in comic roles, having just the right makeup and hair helps to create a character that audiences will respond to and remember after the flickering on the screen is over.

This year the nominees run the gamut from comedy to crime to horror to family fare. Max Linder nearly always had the perfect look of an upper-class dandy, and the hair and makeup for “Max in A Taxi” supports him and the characters who populate his bizarre world. In “FearConrad Veidt becomes a mysterious Hindu magician who haunts a foolish European art collector. “Love’s Forgiveness,” the climactic finale of the serial “Judex,” uses makeup and hair to show the trials our characters have survived, and that they can still come off looking stylish and beautiful (even in death!). Mary Pickford always had her trademark locks, but in “Little Princess” we see this attention to grooming extended to a host of other characters as well as some unusual examples of makeup and hair for the “Forty Thieves” fantasy sequence.

The nominees for best makeup and hairstyling of 1917 are:

  1. Fear
  2. Love’s Forgiveness (Judex)
  3. Little Princess
  4. Max in a Taxi

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Best Documentary 1917

The first category in this year’s Century Awards has no real surprises. There was only one documentary up for consideration, and its topic was pretty predictable as well. The era when audiences would respond to everyday events depicted on film was over, and documentarians had to look for subjects that an audience increasingly accustomed to the self-contained narrative of the feature film would respond to. The biggest event of the day was of course the World War, and this was the source of last year’s winner as well as our own.

The nominee for Best Documentary of 1917 is:

  1. Canadian Official War Films

And the winner is:

Canadian Official War Films!

Today, this collection of documentary footage from France serves to remind us that the largest country on the North American continent was involved in the war in Europe from the very beginning, and that war is a serious business. Even without any graphic footage of combat or its results, the grim attitude of the men depicted speaks to hardship and deprivation. The creators of this film also came up with very clever and exciting animation for maps to show the changing tides of war. Methods like this would become even more sophisticated in movies about the Second World War.

Note that while this is the first time the best documentary has come from Canada, they also brought us “In The Land of the Headhunters,” the closest thing to a documentary I saw in 1914. This is fitting for a nation that would lead in documentary filmmaking later in the twentieth century, thanks to the support of the National Film Board of Canada (founded in 1939).

Where Are My Children (1916)

Crusading filmmaker Lois Weber presents a movie dealing with very modern “women’s issues” – birth control and abortion – but with a sensibility that will strike most as decidedly un-modern and possibly anti-feminist. The movie was censored and criticized at the time, but nevertheless made over 3 million dollars at the box office (a tidy sum at the time), probably in part due to the controversy it stirred.

The movie begins with a somewhat contradictory disclaimer from Universal, the studio that produced it. The studio “believes that children should not be admitted to see this picture…but if you bring them it will do an immeasurable amount of good.” Then, Weber launches into one of her over-strained metaphors, ala the “naked truth” from “Hypocrites.” Here, we see the gates of Heaven open to where little souls of unborn children eagerly await to come down to earth and take on human form. Well, we sort of see it. Actually on the print I saw it was mostly a blurry brown field.  Anyway, apparently these souls are divided among “chance” children, “unwanted” children, and “those who were sent forth only on prayer.” Apparently, only this third kind are “fine and strong,” while the others could be defective or even “marked with the sign of the Serpent.”

With this confusing lesson firmly in mind, we now meet the hero of our story, Richard Walton (Tyrone Power), who is a District Attorney and “a great believer in eugenics.” He is a firm and upright-looking man, who looks in on a courtroom processing minor cases and scoffs that only the “ill-born” wind up in such places. Meanwhile, his wife (Helen Riaume, Power’s wife in real life as well) lies on a divan in the sunshine, eating chocolates and snuggling with lap dogs. We learn that she is childless, a source of great sorrow to Walton, who spends his time playing with his sister’s “eugenically born” baby and watching the neighbor children playing on the lawn. Walton prosecutes a case against a doctor (C. Norman Hammond) who works in the slums and has been caught distributing literature in favor of birth control. He strikes an obvious chord with Walton when he claims that unwanted children are the cause of misery and crime.

This world of serious concerns and solutions to the world’s problems is contrasted with the frivolous existence of his wife, who now goes to visit a friend (Marie Walcamp) who seems to be ill. She confides in Mrs. Walton that she is expecting, and Mrs. Walton tells her that she knows how she can get rid of the child, in order to go back to the world of garden parties and socializing. She brings her friend to the seedy office of one “Dr. Malfit” (Juan de la Cruz). Here, the “unwanted” child is sent back up to its heavenly source. Mrs. Walton goes home and blithely ignores her husband’s obvious pining after the neighbor children.

Now, Mrs. Walton’s brother Roger (A.D. Blake) comes to visit, coincidentally on the same day that the housekeeper’s daughter Lillian (Rena Rogers) returns from school. Roger takes an immediate and unsavory interest in Lillian, who shyly looks away from his lascivious glances. But, as they are staying under one roof, Roger gradually wears her down and soon the two are meeting clandestinely in the garden to kiss. Eventually, Roger comes to his sister with a problem – he needs to help Lillian out or he might have to marry her. Sis knows what’s up and sends him, and Lillian, to Dr. Malfit. Unfortunately, Dr. Malfit seems to do less well with young, innocent, lower-class girls than he did with the frivolous social butterflies, and he “bungles” the operation. Lillian makes it home in a cab, only to die a short while later in the Waltons’ home.

Mr. Walton, outraged at the circumstances, throws Roger out of his house and pursues an aggressive prosecution of Dr. Malfit, who tries to save his skin by threatening Mrs. Walton, but the judge refuses to have the names of his clients paraded in the court room. Mr. Walton does get a look at the book where Malfit has been recording his clients, however, and gets an eye-opener. He returns home, where the ladies are holding another house party, and announces that now he knows why so many of them lack children. He should, he says, prosecute them for manslaughter, but he contents himself with throwing them out of the house. When one tries to protest, he points out her name in Dr. Malfit’s register. Then he turns to his wife and asks the titular question. She slumps in disgrace. There is then a brief chilling epilogue where we see them aging in front of a fireplace, embittered and alone, while ghostly specters of their unborn children come out to them and show what could have been.

The interlacing of eugenics, abortion, and birth control might give modern viewers pause, but it was a fairly typical approach at the time. Margaret Sanger had recently made headlines across the country when arrested for distributing “indecent literature” similar to Dr. Homer in this movie, and her arguments were based not only on women’s rights but also on race improvement and the prevention of immoral abortion to get rid of unwanted children. Lois Weber wields this argument with the subtlety of a sledge hammer, and even goes further to suggest that “fit” rich white women are abusing abortion to prevent healthy children from coming into the world. Since Mr. Walton is the righteous victim, it even appears that she is arguing that a man knows best what is good for his wife and the world, and that women should not be included in the decisions that directly affect their own bodies.

That said, I think I see another argument being made here, one which seems less out of place for a crusading female director. The real problem in this movie is in the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Walton, in what was known at the time as the “separation of the spheres.” Neither one has a clue what is important to the other, nor do they work to understand. Mr. Walton lives in his male sphere of work and law and “big ideas” while Mrs. Walton lives in a world of dogs, chocolate, and house parties. If they would at least talk to one another, they might be able to figure out how to create a partnership that would satisfy each of them. Instead, Mrs. Walton surreptitiously aborts her pregnancies and Mr. Walton ignorantly condemns her for it. The real tragedy is that any sense of love or even friendship seems missing in them from the very beginning of the film. It is this separation that leads to their ultimate fate of sitting, glaring at one another for the rest of their lives, unable even to speak the words of accusation each deserves to hear.

Beyond its didactic aspects, the movie is fairly dull by 1916 standards. The only character who really develops at all is Lillian, who goes from being completely innocent to naively in love to dying and then dead. Everyone else remains exactly the same as they are from beginning to end, except that Mr. Walton is a lot angrier by the end (he’s still the same man, though). Lillian is also the only character who gets much of my sympathy, either. Mr. Walton is too caught up in his beliefs to notice that his wife doesn’t share them and Mrs. Walton isn’t even interested enough to notice that he wants a child until it is too late. I’ve already observed that the opening “effects” sequence is unimpressive and while the double exposures at the end work well enough, they’re pretty much old hat by 1916. The editing is just passable, and there are no very interesting lighting effects or camera movements. The movie is of historical interest, not least because of the controversy it generated at the time (and probably does today), but it has little to offer in the way of entertainment.

Director: Lois Weber

Camera: Allen G. Siegler and Stephen S. Norton

Starring: Tyrone Power, Helen Riaume, A.D. Blake, Marie Walcamp, Juan de la Cruz, Rena Rogers, Cora Drew, C. Norman Hammond.

Run Time: 1 Hr, 5 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Max Wants a Divorce (1917)

One of three movies Max Linder made at Essanay before that studio’s final demise, this movie shows his talents and charm effectively, but apparently was not a hit with audiences of the time. Possibly its “European” themes of divorce, infidelity and jealousy did not sit well with Americans, but I found it a lot of fun.

As the movie begins, Max is cuddling with a girl (Martha Mansfield) still in a bridal veil from their recent marriage. The honeymoon comes to a rapid end, however, when a maid comes in to deliver Max a letter from a lawyer telling him that he stands to inherit three million dollars if he is single on his upcoming birthday. He quickly realizes that it will be in both his and his bride’s interest if they can get a divorce, but her response is to smash various vases and other breakable objects when he proposes it, most of them by throwing them at Max himself. He calms her down by promising to buy a string of pearls and to re-marry her as soon as the money is secured. Then they have to work out a plan to establish “grounds” for the divorce. He tells her that he will seduce a woman of her choosing, and she can send in a detective to catch them in the act.

Max and his wife go out to a very stylish dance and she proposes a large, older woman as his target, but Max vetoes this and chooses a young blonde (Francine Larrimore) instead. His efforts to woo her are interrupted by bursts of his wife’s jealousy, including her throwing a pastry in his face. He manages to get rid of her long enough to at least get the young lady’s phone number. He and his wife secure an apartment for the rendezvous, and she hires a detective over the phone, confusing him slightly when she checks with Max to confirm the time of the affair. He calls from home, once again incurring the jealousy of his wife who interrupts the phone call as well, but she agrees to meet him there. Meanwhile, an “experimental psychologist (Ernest Maupain), driven from his residence by noise complaints from the neighbors, takes on the apartment across the hall. He arranges to have various lunatics come and meet him there, including a man who thinks he’s a car, a butterfly catcher, and a “ballet master” (the last is played by Leo White).

On the night of the date, Max’s wife decides she can’t bear to let this happen outside of her sight, so she puts on a silly disguise and pretends to be a maid. Each time Max and the girl start canoodling, she comes into the room and asks if they need anything. The girl gets more and more uncomfortable, but Max insists she stay until five. The detective goes into the wrong apartment and is put in the room with the “loonies.” Finally, Max, the mistress, and the wife get into a roaring argument, which gets the psychiatrist’s attendants to investigate, and they wind up getting thrown into the loony bin as well. Finally, Max winds up with a large “diva” (Mathilde Comont) and the detective takes notes for his wife. Exhausted, Max and wife return home, where they are greeted by the maid with a new letter. The lawyer apologizes for his mistake, the terms of the will state that he must be married, not single, in order to inherit. Oops!

This movie is a very good example of Linder’s more sophisticated, situational comedy style, and confirms once again that slapstick was not the only form of humor known to the early silent screen. While not as urbane and witty as an Ernst Lubitsch film, it reminded me a bit of his style. I was surprised at the quality of the cinematography, including silhouettes, clever lighting, and many close-ups. This is unusually sophisticated filmmaking for a 2-reel comedy of the time. In terms of acting, the wife’s jealousy was very over-the-top, however. I think a Lubitsch character would have chosen to get even by finding a lover of her own, rather than constantly undermining her own interests by making it harder for Max to come up with grounds for the divorce. I was also surprised when the detective pulled out a notepad rather than a camera to “catch” Max in the act – technological assumptions were different in those days, obviously! The highpoint of the humor, though, is all of the chaos the various “crazy” characters create. The fellow pretending to be a car was a riot, and the “ballet master” managed to be wonderfully incompetent in his constant pirouettes and leaps. Not especially sensitive (or realistic) in terms of its handling of mental illness, this movie manages to be quite funny as a result.

Director: Max Linder

Camera: Arthur Reeves

Starring: Max Linder, Martha Mansfield, Francine Larrimore, Ernest Maupain, Leo White, Helen Ferguson, Mathilde Comont

Run Time: 27 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Century Award Nominations 1917

The Academy Award nominations were announced last night, and for the first time since I started this blog, the Century Awards are a day late and a dollar short. Why a dollar short, you ask? Well, because I simply have to confess this time around that I did not see a representative sample of the most important surviving movies of 1917 to really make a fair judgment. With that in mind, I’ll still go ahead and nominate films I did see this past year. One other note: although Oscars night has traditionally been one of the biggest hit-days for this blog, it is also exhausting to try to post all of the awards on a single day. This year, I plan to scatter the awards out over February and leading up to the big reveal on the 4th of March. Now, without further ado, here are my nominations:

 

Best Documentary

Canadian Official War Films

Best Makeup and Hairstyling

Fear

Love’s Forgiveness (Judex)

Little Princess

Max in a Taxi

Best Costumes

Poor Little Rich Girl

The Tragic Mill (Judex)

A Modern Musketeer

Wild and Woolly

Best Production Design

Easy Street

The Dying Swan

The Immigrant

Wild and Woolly

The Underground Passages of the Chateau Rouge (Judex)

Best Stunts

A Modern Musketeer

Wild and Woolly

Teddy at the Throttle

The Adventurer

The Rough House

Best Editing

The Tragic Mill

A Modern Musketeer

Little Princess

Poor Little Rich Girl

Best Cinematography

The Dying Swan

A Man There Was

Fear

Poor Little Rich Girl

Best Visual Effects

Fear

The Dying Swan

The Little American

The Fantastic Dog Pack

Best Screenplay

A Man There Was

The Dying Swan

Poor Little Rich Girl

Little Princess

Polly Redhead

Best Supporting Actress

ZaSu Pitts in Little Princess

Musidora in The Atonement (Judex)

Gertrude Astor in Polly Redhead

May Emory in Teddy at the Throttle

Best Supporting Actor

Buster Keaton in the Rough House

Eric Campbell in Easy Street

Conrad Veidt in Fear

René Poyen in The Licorice Kid (Judex)

Tully Marshall in A Modern Musketeer

Best Leading Actor

Charlie Chaplin in The Immigrant

Douglas Fairbanks in A Modern Musketeer

Victor Sjöström in A Man There Was

Andrej Gromov in The Dying Swan

René Cresté in Love’s Forgiveness (Judex)

Best Leading Actress

Yvette Andréyor in Jacqueline’s Heart (Judex)

Mary Pickford in Poor Little Rich Girl

Edna Purviance in The Immigrant

Gloria Swanson in Teddy at the Throttle

Vera Karalli in The Dying Swan

Best Director

Evgeni Bauer for The Dying Swan

Charlie Chaplin for Easy Street

Louis Feuillade for The Woman in Black (Judex)

Maurice Tourneur for Little Princess

Victor Sjöström for A Man There Was

Best Picture

The Dying Swan

A Man There Was

Poor Little Rich Girl

Little Princess

Easy Street

The Immigrant

Fear

A Modern Musketeer

The Courage of the Commonplace (1913)

This short, thoughtful film from Vitagraph busts many of our ideas about the Nickelodeon era by proving that it was possible to treat movies as serious “art” before sound, outside of the feature-length format, and even if your name wasn’t D.W. Griffith. While it’s not exactly a happy story, it has an uplifting message about the values of simple people.

The film takes place almost entirely on the confines of a small dirt farm that reeks of poverty and hard work. The star of the film (Mary Charleson), called Mary, seems to have endless chores and tasks to perform. As soon as she finishes one grueling activity, another one rises up in its place. We first see her moving a heavy tub of water when her two younger brothers run up, apparently having hurt themselves. She tends their wounds and we see that they are barefoot. She hauls off the bucket, and the next we see of her, she is hanging laundry to dry, presumably after washing it by hand. She comes into the house to find that her old, tired mother (Loyola O’Connor) needs help setting out the dinner for an entire brood of kids and the aging, wiry father (Charles Bennett). Then Mary’s “frivolous sister” (Myrtle Gonzalez) comes bouncing in. She is, really, the one ray of light in the film, wearing a smile more often than any other character, and also light-colored (if still very simple) dresses.

The next day, several important plot elements are added rapid-fire. First, we see Mary collecting eggs for sale at the market – her source of personal income. We also see the father driving his old horses to plow a field. One of them, “faithful old Dobbin,” has become ill. Finally, we see what Mary is saving up for, she receives a letter informing her of her acceptance to the “Household and Fine Arts School” at a reduced tuition. All of this comes quite rapidly within the first five minutes of the movie, and the rest plays out as you might expect. The “frivolous” sister goes on dates with a boy and goes to the movies, while Mary continues her life of drudgery, now interspersed with daydreams of a relatively idle academic life where she sits on well-trimmed lawns discussing Big Ideas with well-dressed people and plays tennis with boys. Then, on the day she is to leave, the horse dies, which will leave the family ruined. Of course, Mary swallows her dreams and gives the money to her father to buy a new horse.

That simple summary does not transmit the poignancy or effectiveness of this movie. Its emotional pull didn’t diminish for me on repeat viewings – I started tearing up as soon as Mary’s letter arrived the third time through. It isn’t through any kind of fancy editing or camerawork that this movie becomes powerful, it’s just through its ability to tell a simple story that shows the viewer something old in a new way. That’s not to say that the technical side is a failure, there are adequate edits and occasional close-ups to emphasize the emotional state of the actors, but these work subtly, without being obvious or obtrusive. When they happen, it just “feels right” as if the director knew what would work without having to experiment heavily.

Of course, something like this wouldn’t work without high quality acting, and Mary Charleson provides most of the emotional work the viewer sees. She constantly looks as if she struggles to finish the current task, only to look up immediately to see what else needs to be done. This is in counterpoint to her wistful looks of anticipation regarding her school plans, her plan of escape. The other actors each have a simple archetype to play out – the spoiled sister, the weary mother, the worried yet oblivious father, and all the hungry mouths to feed of the many siblings. But they take their roles seriously, and put real feeling into them. Particularly Gonzalez, whose smile almost lights up the bleakness of the farm, even though we know she doesn’t deserve happiness as much as Mary does. Vitagraph almost seems to scold its audience when the frivolous sister attends a Nickelodeon screening one of their movies, yet who would choose to be Mary rather than the sister?

Director: Rollin S. Sturgeon

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Mary Charleson, Charles Bennett, Loyola O’Connor, Myrtle Gonzalez, Edwin August

Run Time: 13 Min

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

The Hazards of Helen, episode 13 (1915)

Alternate (episode) Title: Escape on the Fast Freight

This episode of what the long-running movie serial displays Helen Holmes at the height of her powers as “Helen,” a plucky telegrapher who winds up saving the day – again. If reports are accurate, she was also an uncredited director, making this an even more important piece of the history of women in film.

This movie begins with Helen at work. She receives and decodes a message, then gets up and pulls a switch that brings a locomotive to a halt in the station outside. As she accepts a large strongbox of money from the conductor, two shifty-looking tramps look on. They are thrown off the train by a man with a badge, who then comes over and assists Helen with the cart carrying the money box. They get it into her office, but neglect to bring the receipt, which the tramps find, learning that there’s $1500 in the office. Helen and the sheriff are unable to get the large box into her safe, so they leave it on the floor. As soon as the sheriff leaves, the tramps rush in with a gun. A rather complex cross-cut sequence begins with the sheriff outside, the tramps in the office, and Helen inside of a closet, where the tramps have shoved her after securing the room. They find the key and open the box, but Helen starts shouting for help. The sheriff doesn’t hear, but he does hear the gunshot that the tramps respond with. Helen, we see, has ducked just in time. Whew!

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