Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

A Storm at Sea (1900)

This short from Edison illustrates the ongoing challenge of finding new and dramatic subjects for early movies. In this instance, a sea-crossing, probably with the intention of shooting movies for American audiences in Europe, was interrupted by bad weather and the Edison team decided to shoot that, with minimal preparation.

storm-at-seaWe see the railing of a ship, at an angle that suggests the camera is at middle of the deck A rope cuts through the image horizontally, directly in front of the camera. The horizon bobs up and down slowly, but to a considerable degree. We see swollen waves cresting, at least when the ship is low enough to permit it: at other times we see only sky off the deck. Two men stand casually at the railing, occasionally gesturing at the ocean. At one point, one of them reacts as if he had been splashed by a wave, but the water drops are invisible to the camera. At the end of the movie, an image of the rolling sea without the ship or the men in the foreground has been edited on.

The major problem with this film, from a modern perspective, is the two guys standing in front of the camera. They just lean on the railing as if they were watching a flock of seagulls fly by. They don’t hold on, or lean with the rocking ship, or give any sense of peril or drama. I assume they were told to get into the shot to give the scene some perspective and human interest, but their effect is to make the whole thing seem very off-hand. This is contradicted by the claims of the Edison catalog: “While our photographers were crossing the Atlantic Ocean a most wonderful and sensational picture was secured, showing a storm at sea. The picture was secured by lashing the camera to the after bridge of the Kaiserine Maria Theresa [sic], of the North German Lloyd Line, during one of its roughest voyages. The most wonderful storm picture ever photographed. Taken at great risk.” While the “risk” seems dubious, the rigging of the camera may have been somewhat innovative, as very few pictures had been shot in heavy seas at this time. It may also explain the rope we see passing in front of the lens, which may have been part of the arrangement to keep the camera from sliding all over the deck.

Director: James H. White

Camera: Unknown, possibly James H. White

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min, 30 secs

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

Watermelon Contest (1900)

This film is either a deliberate remake of the 1896 movie “Watermelon Eating Contest” or else an unintentional return to a theme seen as “natural” in American cinema. The movie shows that little had changed, so far as the depiction of African Americans was concerned, while cinema progressed.

watermelon-contest1We see a group of four men eagerly consuming watermelons and spitting out seeds. At first things are fairly orderly, although the men occasionally seem to joke or roughhouse with one another. One man finishes his slice of watermelon and reaches for another, but soon the others are fighting with him and the one man sitting in front who seems to have the largest piece. Pieces of watermelon get broken off and everyone gets messy.

As with the original, this is not a film that is likely to agree with modern audiences. Today there is much stronger sensitivity, even among white people, to the degree that watermelon has become a racist trope, confirming the inferiority, innocence and dependency of black people. This movie simply confirms all of this, including the animalistic way in which the “contestants” are shown eating and fighting with one another. It’s all the more noticeable because there have been so few other depictions of African Americans up to this point. They are only brought in for movies like this, which are designed to humiliate them as individuals and as a race. This would lay the groundwork for a century of racism in the American media, which still is felt to this day.

Director: James H. White

Camera: Unknown, possibly James H. White

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 2 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Capture of Boer Battery by British (1900)

This is a reenactment of a current event, released by Edison Studios with a strong advertising campaign that suggested exhibitors were getting the real thing. It shows the growing importance of action and dramatic tension in early film.

boer-battery-captured-by-britishWe see a line of soldiers from the rear. There are several men with rifles and two cannon visible The men are not in military uniforms, but seem to be “irregulars” or volunteer combatants. These are the Boers. From our vantage point, we can see past them and down a hill, where several men in dark uniforms are approaching our position. The British are coming! The Boers fire repeatedly at the approaching figures, but they come nearer and nearer, and some cavalrymen on horseback arrive early and put the Boers to flight. Soon, men in British uniforms with kilts (Highlanders) walk over the crest of the hill, marching right up to the camera and past it. By this time all Boers have fled the scene.

Since the Spanish-American War, simulated combat footage had become an established genre of the movies, but by 1900 the US was at (relative) peace, so other wars had to be sought out. The Biograph Company’s English branch actually sent a cameraman to South Africa, but Edison had no such stringer available, so they shot this scene in East Orange, New Jersey. Most “real” war footage at this time consisted of ship launchings and men marching anyway, the technology simply didn’t support actual combat photography. This didn’t hinder the writers for the Edison catalog, however, and the entry for this movie read: “Nothing can exceed the stubborn resistance shown by the Gordon Highlanders, as we see them steadily advancing in the face of a murderous fire of the Boers, who are making their guns speak with rapid volleys. One by one the gunners fall beside their guns, and as the smoke clears for an instant the Highlanders are seen gaining nearer and nearer the disputed ground. Finally, a grand charge is made, the siege is carried, and amid cheers they plant the colors on the spot they have so dearly earned.” It’s hard to say now how many audience members really thought they were seeing war footage and how many were in on the joke.

Director: James H. White

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min, 10 secs

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

The Kiss (1900)

This was released as an admitted remake of the original “The Kiss,” starring May Irwin and John C. Rice. It was far less controversial in its time, but Edison Studios did everything they could to make it as profitable.

kiss-1900We see a mid-shot of two people, a man and a woman sitting close together, in front of a backdrop that suggests a cozy setting. The woman has her hair up and wears a frilly dress, the man has a mustache. They hug one another and peck at each other’s lips, although the kisses generally only last for a second or two. There is no really scandalous deep kissing, and they spend more time smiling at one another than actually kissing.

As a student of early cinema, I’m always amused when someone today complains about there being too many remakes. Remakes are literally as old as cinema, and they were far more common and frequent in the first years of experimentation than they are today. The Edison catalog was entirely up front about this remake: “Nothing new, but an old thing done over again and done well. Some one has attempted to describe a kiss as ‘something made of nothing,’ but this is not one of that kind, but one of those old fashioned ‘home made’ kind that sets the whole audience into merriment and motion, and has always proven a popular subject. It is very fine photographically and an exhibit is not complete without it.” It’s interesting to wonder why it was necessary to remake this film only four years after its release at the same studio – possibly the original was now too worn out to make further copies, or possibly they hoped that by using a new camera and modern film, they could improve the picture and the impact. The actors are noticeably younger than John Rice and May Irwin, and it may be that as their fame waned, the image of two middle-aged people kissing was less appealing than it had been.

Director: Unknown (imdb claims Edwin S. Porter, but Library of Congress does not confirm this).

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown (imdb claims Fred Ott, but this is almost certainly wrong).

Run Time: 45 secs

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

Gold Rush Scenes in the Klondike (1899)

This is a series of footage presented on the DVD “Invention of the Movies,” but I’m not entirely sure that these scenes were presented to audiences stitched together as they are here. As it is, it appears as a kind of 1-minute documentary about the gold rush, giving modern viewers a chance to see Alaska as it appeared over a century ago.

gold-rush-scenes-in-the-klondike1The first shot is a newspaper headline that emphasizes the harsh conditions and large numbers of unskilled people emigrating to Alaska in search of gold. After that we see a tracking shot down the street of an Alaskan boom town, with largely empty streets and many signs for new businesses. Spectators in the street stare directly up at the camera, which seems to be on a wagon or other conveyance. The next shot shows a much busier street from sidewalk-level, and here crowds line the streets. There are banners over the street and a man carries a sign advertising a local business, giving the whole scene the sense of a parade or fairgrounds. Next we see a raging river, and a large boat speeds into view, carrying a handful of men through the rapids. The last shot shows men working at sluices, with a camp visible in the background. There is a woman at the lower part of the screen (distinguishable in her heavy 19th-century dress), and at one point she picks up a rock and shows it to her escort. I get the impression that she is being given a tour of the mining facility.

gold-rush-scenes-in-the-klondikeAs I said above, I don’t know (and somewhat doubt) that these strips of film were ever shown to audiences in exactly this way. The editing structure of the current presentation seems too close to modern documentary technique to have been used at the time. What is more likely is that each of these shots was a part of a longer film, sold separately or in a bundle to exhibitors, who showed them with live narration or reading from newspapers about events in Alaska. Possibly these snippets are all that has survived, and editing them into a single film made sense from a video distribution standpoint. We do get some nice contemporary images of the Klondike, however. The ramshackle buildings and simple tents that make up the city and mining area speak to the primitive conditions people embraced, and the crowded street scene gives a sense of the population-problems the area was facing. Also the fact that we see only one woman among all these shots is telling in terms of the skewed gender-situation at this time and place. On the whole, while they are discouragingly short, these clips do transport us to a time which has been romanticized by cinema at least since the first version of “The Spoilers” hit the screen.

Director: Robert K. Bonine, Thomas Crahan

Camera: Robert K. Bonine, Thomas Crahan

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min

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

A Wringing Good Joke (1899)

This Edison short works on about the same level as the Lumiere film “A Sprinkler Sprinkled,” and delivers the same kind of prankish voyeuristic opportunity to its audience. Humor in early cinema was largely limited to very basic pratfalls and slapstick, as it would take greater length and complexity to set up other kinds of jokes.

wringing-good-jokeWe see a set representing the inside of a working class home or apartment. A man dozes on a chair to the right of the stage, while a woman (possibly a man in drag) works at a laundry tub to the right. When the woman goes to answer the door, a child runs out and ties on end of a string to his father’s chair, and the other to the piece of laundry his mother has left in the tub. When she returns, she begins cranking the wringer and inadvertently pulls over the chair, which itself pulls over the tub when it falls, resulting in both parents falling into a puddle of sudsy water. The boy runs out and laughs riotously at the sight.

I’m not certain if this film was shot at the Black Maria, but if so it is by far the most elaborate set we’ve seen there. By this time Edison cameras were small enough to be portable, so they may have been shooting at another location. I spoke of these kind of movies as “voyeuristic” above, and like all movies they give an audience a chance to fantasize by watching about participating in acts they do not commit themselves. In this case, the audience gets to enjoy the child’s humor at causing an accident, but avoids having to suffer or witness the consequences of this act. Other movies of this type, including “The Sprinkler Sprinkled,” also allow the audience to watch as the perpetrator is punished – without being punished themselves, thus allowing them to enjoy both the act of revolt and its suppression in safety. This movie denies us that part of the experience, but leaves it to our imagination what befalls the boy when his parents get off the floor. One final note is that most modern children have probably never even seen a “mangle” or wringer, and would probably need to have the joke explained to them, although children at the time surely knew exactly what was going on.

Director: James H. White

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 25 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Firemen Rescuing Men and Women (1899)

This short from Edison contains action and suspense, and even the beginnings of a plot as the bravery and selflessness of rescue teams is put at the forefront. While the melodramatic adulation of fire fighters may seem quaintly nineteenth century to us today, it is worth remembering that 9/11 raised similar emotions in audiences quite recently.

firemen-rescuing-men-and-womenWe see the front of a building, with four windows visible and ladders propped against it. Smoke billows from all of the window, and two teams of firemen work from the highest ones, helping people in civilian clothing out the windows and onto the ladders, where they descend below the frame line. At one point, a fire fighter tosses a doll out the window to one of his fellows on the ladder. He then tosses it casually to the ground. After two men and a woman have been rescued, the fire fighters themselves go in and out of the windows, seemingly uncertain, for a few seconds.

The original catalog entry by Edison emphasizes “the efficiency of modern life-saving methods and apparatus now in use by the fire departments.” All it looks like is a few men on ladders, but presumably this emphasis on modern efficiency would have carried over to the live narration an exhibitor would have used to accompany this film. I assume that this was a staged event or a training exercise, and not a real fire, although it might have been presented to audiences as authentic, and there’s nothing that actually proves it fake. The doll being tossed from the window is the one odd bit, and I wonder if it was intended to help simulate a child-rescue, but the performers didn’t understand this and just tossed it quickly aside to get to the “real” rescuing.

Director:  J. Stuart Blackton

Camera: Albert E. Smith

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Burglar on the Roof (1898)

An early narrative short from Edison Studios, this film seems to have comedic intentions. While it’s too short to give a developed plot or characters, it shows that expectations of some kind of story were beginning to develop quite early in cinema.

burglar-on-the-roofWe see a man hunched over a skylight, removing coats and other objects. Two women walk up from behind him and one begins swatting his bottom with a broom. He falls to his knees, and then some men rush up and engage him in fisticuffs. At first, he acquits himself well, but his opponents overwhelm him and the woman continues hitting him with the broom while he is held in place.

I’d call this movie an early example of slapstick, since it relies on simulated violence for its humor, although it is not reliant on difficult or dangerous stuntwork to make this point. The audience presumably is meant to get pleasure from seeing the burglar get his comeuppance and there is a “vulgar” element in that he is hit on his behind by a woman at first – hardly noticeable today, but far from “proper” in the nineteenth century. It’s worth noting that Alice Guy was also making movies about burglars on rooftops the same year, although I  don’t know for certain which came first.

Director: J. Stuart Blackton

Camera: Albert E. Smith

Starring: J. Stuart Blackton

Run Time: 30 secs

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

September 1916

Our roundup of headlines from 100 years ago shows a mix of tragedy and triumph, with natural disasters, political unrest, and important movies being released in a month that marks the end of the second full year of fighting in Europe. Here are some of the things newspapers were talking about at the time.

Mark I Tanks on September 15, 1916

Mark I Tanks on September 15, 1916

World War I.

Bulgaria declares war on Romania on Sept 1, going on to take Dobruja.

Battle of Flers–Courcelette in France begins September 15 with a British advance. The battle is significant for the first use of the tank in warfare; also for the debut of the Canadian and New Zealand Divisions in the Battle of the Somme.

British pilot Leefe Robinson becomes the first to shoot down a German Zeppelin over Britain.

Collapsed Quebec Bridge, Sept 11, 1916

Collapsed Quebec Bridge, Sept 11, 1916

Disasters

A mechanical failure causes the central span of the Quebec Bridge, a cantilever-type structure, to crash into the Saint Lawrence River for the second time on September 11, killing 13 workers.

Animal Cruelty

Mary, a circus elephant, is hanged September 13 in the town of Erwin, Tennessee for killing her handler, Walter “Red” Eldridge.

Politics

Iyasu V of Ethiopia is deposed in a palace coup September 27, in favour of his aunt Zewditu.

CountFilm

Charlie Chaplin’s short “The Count” released September 4.

Release of D. W. Griffith‘s film Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Through the Ages in the United States, September 5.

Births

Douglas Kennedy (actor, in “Adventures of Don Juan” and “The Amazing Transparent Man”), Sept 14; Margaret Lockwood (actress, in “Night Train to Munich” and “The Lady Vanishes”), Sept 15; Rossano Brazzi (actor, in “South Pacific” and “Omen III”), Sept 18; Peter Finch (actor, in “Network” and “The Miniver Story“), Sept 28.

Deaths

Sydney Ayres, 37, American stage & screen actor and director, The Sting of Conscience, The Avenger, As in a Dream, multiple sclerosis.

Arthur Hoops, 45, American stage & screen actor, The Secret of Eve, Bridges Burned, Extravagance, The Eternal Question, The Scarlet Woman, heart attack.

Camille D’Arcy, 37, American actress, The Prince Chap, Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines, A Daughter of the City, The White Sister, The Pacifist, infection from bathing.

Putting the “Con” back in Cinecon

For a moment, I’d like to step out of the world of century-old history, and talk about modern exhibition of historical films. Last year, I attended the 51st annual Cinecon Film Festival in Hollywood and I saw some great films, but I also saw what looked to me like a film festival in trouble. I wrote some supportive things, but I wasn’t sure I’d go back again this year. I’m glad I did. This year the program may not have been quite as exciting, but the festival itself was more cohesive, better-attended, and better organized.

From the Hollywood Heritage Museum

From the Hollywood Heritage Museum

Sometimes it takes a tragedy to jolt people out of their complacency, and that may be what happened here. About three months before the festival, Bob Birchard, the long-time President of the Cinecon nonprofit, died. I think what happened at that point was that a lot of people who had been Letting George Do It (or Bob) suddenly realized that if they didn’t step up to the plate, the festival wasn’t going to happen. And they did. The Hollywood Heritage Museum offered funds and threw their oft-closed doors open for festival attendees. Cinecon got the schedule of films out early for the first time in years. They reached out for donations, discounts from local restaurants and businesses, and early registrations. They prepared a new logo and a really exciting set of between-films “bumpers.” In general, they improved their branding and went from being a stodgy, old-fashioned film festival, to something more like a Con, in the sense of Gen Con or Comic-Con (not in the slang sense of ripping people off). The result was much higher attendance and visibility, and a much less “in-club” feeling – a more inclusive event that felt more comfortable to be at.

hollywood_signI’ve already reviewed the two Century Films I was able to see at Cinecon, and I don’t want to turn this into a column reviewing movies that don’t fit the theme of this blog. I did get to see a number of exciting films, though, including “Battle of the Century” (1927) and “King of Jazz” (1930), both of which I’ve been reading about as they made the festival circuit over the last year. The “King of Jazz” restoration was partly inspired by Bob Birchard’s request some years earlier, and “Battle of the Century” was restored thanks to past-president Jon Mirsalis. Speaking of, both he and Frederick Hodges were on hand to provide music for the silent films, as well as Scott Lasky, who was new to me but also acquitted himself well. Jon Mirsalis actually brought a high-tech synthesizer for his accompaniment, which allowed him to simulate many different instruments for those films, while Hodges and Lasky went with the traditional solo piano. Other standout films for me included Paul Leni’s “The Last Warning,” “Who Done It?” with Abbott and Costello, and the hilariously bad “Jungle Mystery” serial that ran interspersed through the first four days of movies.

I hope I’ll see some of you at Cinecon 53!