Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Trial Marriages (1907)

This short from Biograph draws from then-recent controversy in the news to create a rather over-the-top slapstick comedy. Unfortunately, it also demonstrates the weak production values at the studio prior to the arrival of D.W. Griffith.

A man is shown in medium-shot, reading a newspaper. Whatever he reads causes him to grin, and then to erupt in laughter. The next shot shows an insert of a (real) newspaper headline: “Mrs. Parsons Advises Trial Marriages.” What follows is a sequence of such “trials” on the part of the man, who we now presume is a bachelor looking forward to enjoying a string of low-commitment affairs. The first is labeled “The Crying Girl” in a forward-facing intertitle. The scene is set as the girl, apparently reading the same article in a newspaper, confers with her father in a small apartment. The father appears happy to have her off his hands, and he invites the bachelor in and introduces them, encouraging his daughter when she pulls back a bit in the initial handshake. Then he leaves the young people alone. The bachelor makes what efforts he can to woo her, but ultimately it is the father who returns and proudly shakes hands with him. After an edit, we see their home life, evidently in the same apartment. The girl cannot stop crying. The former bachelor tries to calm her, but eventually becomes annoyed and she runs offstage, soon to be replaced by her father, who angrily seizes the man and beats him, ultimately throwing him through the window.

The second affair is with “The Jealous Girl.” This “girl” appears a bit older, and their romance is comparably affectionate, she throws her arms gleefully around him when he proposes. An edit takes us again to their home life, this time showing a dining room in what looks like a comfortable home. There is a maid, who brings out a service with tea and food. The wife looks disapprovingly as she serves her husband. After she leaves briefly, the man moves to the maid, holding her shoulders and speaking softly. The wife comes back in and goes ballistic, throwing everything on the table at her husband, hitting him with a chair, and turning over the furniture. The next sequence is “The Tired Girl.” This time, we skip the romantic scene and begin in what seems a relatively squalid combined living-dining room. The man is running a floor sweeper across the floor, while the woman (the youngest-looking so far) reclines on a divan. She occasionally rises to give a big yawn with her arms, and then returns to a horizontal position. The man brings her some tea, then puts on an apron starts doing the dishes, breaking each one as he finishes. The woman gives him her teacup and goes back to sleep. Finally, he forces her upright and puts the apron on her. She reluctantly moves toward the basin. An edit finds the man in the coal cellar, where he is sawing a log (a visual pun?). The wife comes down the stairs and asks him to move a heavy tin of coal up the stairs, without offering to help. He makes it about halfway, then the tin crashes down on top of him.

For the final affair, we see “In Union There Is Strength.” Here, we return to the pattern of first seeing the romance, but this time the single woman brings along a brood of children, presumably from a prior trial marriage. The kids are loud and disturbing, and make it impossible for the couple to be alone. Despite this obstacle, the next scene finds the man in a kitchen, struggling with domestic duties while the kids run around and cause chaos. When an older daughter causes a shelf full of dishes to collapse, the man, at his wits end, prepares to administer a spanking. At this moment the wife appears and begins the most violent scene in the film, literally destroying the entire kitchen by throwing the man about the room. When he collapses, she sits on him and weeps. The final shot is the man in a hospital bed with bandages and bruises, holding a newspaper and shaking his fist at it angrily. “Never Again” reads the intertitle.

In November of 1906, Elsie Clews Parsons, the wife of a prominent Republican congressman, published a sociological study of the family. Towards the end of the 300-page text, she speculated that American families could be made healthier if young women would wait longer before having children, and if relationships between young people could be of a less “permanent” basis than lifelong marriages. She suggested something fairly similar to modern dating: premarital sex, birth control, co-habitation, and easy separation, all predicated on the assumption of no children being born during these “trial marriages.” The moral outrage she triggered resembled a modern Internet flame war, with epithets, death threats, and refusal to listen to opposing viewpoints. Much of it centered around the idea that she was undermining the decency of young women, who were supposed to remain chaste until marriage according to the morality of the day.

The real Elsie Clews Parsons

Biograph, always willing to rip its subject matter from the headlines, eagerly leapt into the fray with this parody. They avoided raising serious questions about the morality of young women by suggesting that men would be the worst victims of this arrangement. We see our bachelor systematically feminized and weakened by the process of his marriages. It’s notable that he winds up doing housework fairly early on, especially in light of earlier films like “Why Mr. Nation Wants a Divorce” or contemporary ones like “Troubles of a Grass Widower” that use this “unnatural” gender-reversal as a source of comedy. But the real comedy comes from the ways in which he is abused by the wives. Again notably, at the beginning of the film it is the girl’s father who attacks him, but by the end the violence comes from his wife.

The movie is pretty poorly-made, even by the conventions of 1907. The sets are bare-bones and props are only brought in to be smashed, not to add any atmosphere. The “glass” window the man is thrown through is clearly made of paper. The stairs look like they were thrown together at the last moment and one doubts if they would hold both actors at the same time. Apart from the opening and closing shots, the camera is held at a great distance from the actors, who must broadly pantomime to get their emotions across. None of the story is told through lighting, effects, or editing. Compare this to “Troubles of a Grass Widower,” from the next year, in which Max Linder uses the conventions of the time to create an effective farce. There are far fewer laughs to be found here, though it is certainly representative of what the troubled studio was putting out at this time.

Director: Francis J. Marion

Camera: Billy W. Bitzer

Cast: Unknown

Run Time: 12 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

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The Dying Swan (1917)

With some sadness, I return once more to the work of Evgeni Bauer, who I discovered early in the first year of this project. This movie, which was one of the last he made, will likely be the last one I will review – unless I discover one I hadn’t known was available, or unless new discoveries are made in Russia.

The movie begins with a somewhat somber “meet cute,” in which a young man (Vitold Polonski) looking for a lost dog asks a young woman (Vera Karalli) if she has seen it. She turns away and does not answer, but her father (Aleksandr Kheruvimov) comes over and explains that she is mute. The young couple are introduced as Gizella and Viktor, but they make no further contact at this time. Later, we learn that Gizella is a dancer, and that her “soul” is dancing, but she is deeply sad that she couldn’t speak to the young man. They soon see one another again on a forest path while she is picking flowers and he is out for a walk. When she sees him, she stumbles and falls, turning an ankle. He helps her back to her house, thus learning where she lives. Read the rest of this entry »

Why Mr. Nation Wants a Divorce (1901)

Similar to “Kansas Saloon Smashers,” this is another comedy short from Edison about the militant prohibitionist, Carrie Nation, this movie uses gender-role reversal to lampoon her efforts. Here, we get a peek into what critics thought of her home life – and it turned out to have more truth than they may have realized.

A wide-angle shot of a proscenium-style set shows a domestic middle-class bedroom, decorated with a needlepoint proclaiming “What Is a Home without a Mother?” and two rather creepy-looking portraits of the husband and wife. The husband, a man with a long beard, jumps out of bed in his nightshirt, and picks up a baby from a crib. Evidently, the baby is crying and its mother is nowhere to be seen. The man checks the baby’s diaper, then begins strolling about the room rocking the child to sleep. In the process, he steps on a tack. Just as he puts the baby back in  its crib, an older boy crawls out of the bed, also crying. This child the father disciplines with a quick spanking, turning him over his knee for a couple of quick pats, then rudely pushing him back into the bed. Now the hapless husband paces about the room, bemoaning the absence of his wife. He picks up a newspaper and grows even more angry – presumably it is filled with tales of Mrs. Nation’s exploits. He throws it into the fire. The baby is still not asleep, so now he gives it its bottle, and this reminds him of his own bottle: a bottle of whiskey secreted under a pillow. He retrieves it and starts to drink with pleasure, when suddenly Mrs. Nation arrives unexpectedly. She grabs the bottle and throws it out the door, then turns Mr. Nation over her knee and spanks him, just as he had done to their son only moments earlier.

The humor of this movie is mostly based on the idea that a politically active woman is by definition neglecting her wifely duties, and that a weak man will be dominated by a strong woman, creating an unnatural and thereby funny situation (Mr. Nation is smaller than his wife). It’s all the more ironic in that Carrie Nation only returns from her “manly” political work in order to assert her dominance over her tippling husband. None of this is likely to get a lot of laughs today, but what is somewhat funny is that the real Mr. Nation, a retired minister, did in fact sue his wife for divorce on similar grounds only a few months after this film. He wasn’t taking care of children (Carrie’s only daughter, from a previous marriage, was a grown woman), but he did complain that she neglected the housework and wouldn’t let him drink! I thought that the depiction of child-rearing in the film was interesting: apparently the best way to get a child to sleep was to give him a couple of smacks on the bottom. I doubt if Dr. Spock would endorse this.

Director: George S. Fleming and Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Cast: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min, 40 secs.

You can watch it for free: here.

Kansas Saloon Smashers (1901)

This short film from Edison gives a comic reproduction of then-recent prohibitionist activity in the Mid-West.  Although her name is not mentioned in the title, it is clearly a film about Carrie Nation.

We see a proscenium-style wide-shot of the front of a bar, with various characters approaching the bartender to purchase drinks. There is a working-class woman, who buys a “growler” in a bucket, a friendly policeman, who buys and drinks a whiskey, and an Irish caricature, who carries a sod shovel and smokes a pipe. Suddenly, a group of women in black dresses and bonnets rush in with hatchets, smashing bottles of liquor. One of them grabs the “growler” the Irishman was buying and throws it on him, then she runs behind the bar and smashes the mirror. She is then sprayed by the bartender with his seltzer bottle, and the tide of the battle turns as the policeman returns to escort the women out of the bar. They leave, but the policeman slips on the beer and falls. The bartender also slips right as the film ends.

The Real Carrie Nation with a hatchet.

Carrie Nation was able to carry out her attacks on Kansas saloons in part because State law stated that they should not exist. She would be arrested for disturbing the peace, but released after a day because of the difficulty associated with prosecuting her for doing what the police were supposed to do already. The eastern Edison crew that worked on this movie don’t seem to have been terribly sympathetic, the cop we see drinking seems to be a nice fellow, and the prohibitionists are out of control and ultimately defeated with a seltzer spritzer. Still, it was a smart move, dramatizing events that were widely spoken about among the classes of people that were watching movies at the time. This movie was likely adapted both for individual kinetoscope viewing and for screening at venues that had projectors. It’s a pretty simple shoot, but note that the smashing of the mirror is accomplished with a jump cut, similar to the effects that Georges Méliès was now famous for. The narrator on the “Treasures” disc this is included with suggests that the women are played by men: if so, I couldn’t tell, but it’s true that women were pretty scarce at the early Edison shoots.

Director: George S. Fleming and Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Little Princess* (1917)

The classic tale of a young scamp in a snooty all-girls school is given the star treatment by Mary Pickford in this movie. Pickford had made her name playing girls well below her actual age, and here she really stretches things, pretending to be a child of only 10 or 11.

As the story opens, Mary, as Sara Crewe, is still in India, hiding in an urn and spying on her father (played by Norman Kerry) as he decides to move back to Britain after years of service in the colonial forces. She is opposed to the idea, being accustomed to a privileged life of servants and a large house, but children don’t get to make those decisions for themselves. She is enrolled in the Minchin boarding school for girls, where she is very shy and uncertain at first, and this is perceived as standoff-ish, which, along with the vast wealth her father provides for her comforts, earns her the nickname of “little Princess” from the other students.

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November 1917

It’s practically the end of the month, and I’m only now getting around to an installment of the Century News! Part of the reason I’ve hesitated this month is that so much happened, and it is so momentous, that it’s almost impossible to approach. The second Russian Revolution that started the Russian Civil War and ultimately created the USSR would transform history on nearly all levels. Most relevant for this blog: it would wind up having a huge impact on cinema history, leading to the rise of montage and directors like Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov. More immediately, however, it meant a sudden collapse of the thriving Russian film industry as the blockade prevented new film stock from entering the country and many of the actors and producers went into exile. One thing that this project has discovered is that pre-revolutionary Russian cinema cannot be dismissed as “backwards” or “bourgeois.” Personally, I regard Evgeni Bauer as a genius equal or perhaps even superior to Eisenstein (though there are many who would disagree). Certainly, Soviet cinema never produced an actor of the stature of Ivan Mosjoukine.

It’s hard to discuss this period also without thinking of present-day politics. The rapture over the “Fall of the Soviet Union” has largely given way to fears over a new Russian superpower and its influence on the West. I’d rather avoid making any definite statements about how this is or will play out (that’s not the topic of this blog), but maybe some insights can be gleaned by thinking about how Russian history has played out on the world stage over the course of the past century. Here are some headlines that might start that process.

    Read the rest of this entry »

Fat and Lean Wrestling Match (1900)

Alternate Title: Nouvelles Luttes Extravagantes

A fairly typical example of Georges Méliès-style slapstick with special effects, this short film has rather gruesome comedy. No doubt in the years before cartoons, it would have been very popular with children.

The movie begins with a kind of tease, as we see two women in leotards on the proscenium-style set right after the title. It’s a bit confusing, however, because neither woman is noticeably fatter than the other. They take a bow and suddenly their clothes have become traditional 19th-century female garb. Then they walk off-stage and grab sheets, which they wrap around themselves. When they pull off the sheets, they have transformed into two men in leotards. These two men, who also seem about equal in weight, now begin to fight. One grabs the other, who turns into a doll, and thrashes him about, throwing him to the ground. He transforms back into a man while his opponent takes a bow and proceeds to pull off the other man’s head, arms and legs (now he’s a doll). The victor takes his bow and puts the first man back together again, allowing him to come back to life. Then each man pulls his female counterpart onto the stage from behind the back of the other. The men toss the ladies into the air, causing them to disappear, and then dance off the stage together.

Now is when the title finally makes sense, because two men in particularly comical wrestling get-up appear to fight, and one is fat, the other thin. The thin man tries to grapple his opponent, but he cannot budge the fat man due to his great bulk. The fat man lies on top of the thin man, flattening him out completely. He turns his back on his defeated opponent, who suddenly comes back to life and kicks him in the rear, causing the fat man to fly into the air. When he comes back down, both men are knocked to the floor, but the thin man leaps on the fat man’s belly, causing him to explode into various dismembered parts, similar to the man in the first fight. The thin man takes his bow and departs, but the fat man’s pieces slowly reassemble themselves. The fat man stands up and gestures angrily in the direction of his departed vanquisher.

Interestingly, the write up in the Star Films catalog describes only the second part of the film, suggesting that the distributor didn’t know what to make of the title either. Apparently something like “Burlesque Wrestling Matches” didn’t occur to anyone as an alternative. The French title means something closer to “New Wrestling Extravagances” or “New Extravagant Wrestling.” The other thing that’s interesting about this film is that I don’t think we see Méliès himself as any of these characters – although he’s not in every one of his early movies, he’s in an awful lot of them. By the standards of some of these movies, the special effects are fairly minimal. It’s the madcap pacing that makes this one work, more than mystery of his visual fantasy.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 2 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Poor Little Rich Girl (1917)

One of Mary Pickford’s most successful features at the time, this was directed by Maurice Tourneur – or, perhaps, co-directed by him, given the power Mary wielded on the set – and written by her friend Frances Marion. It’s probably not her most accessible movie today, for reasons I’ll discuss below, but it’s a valuable insight into what made her a superstar for her era.

The movie starts out by introducing its title character, 10-year-old Gwendolyn, played by Pickford (I’ll address that later, just accept it for now). It is immediately established that she is “rich” in wealth, but “poor” in love. Her parents neglect her and leave her with unsympathetic and strict servants in charge. The scene is set for us with highly stylized intertitles that show a small girl in an enormous room, with toys but no companions. Then Gwen comes skipping onto the scene, only to be confronted by two stern-looking butlers. She sees some children skating outside the window and smiles happily, but a servant comes over to slam it down. She begs her mother (Madlaine Traverse) to give her a minute, but her mother is rushing off somewhere and says maybe they can talk to-morrow. Gwen asks, “Why is it that my to-morrows never come?”

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Aeroplane Flight and Wreck (1910)

This movie was probably used for stock footage many times in years to come in those movies mocking early efforts to achieve air travel. An inventor demonstrates his new aircraft to the camera, but the title spoils the ending for us.

The movie stars one “M. Cody,” who is presumably the inventor of the biplane we see displayed. He arrives by horse and carriage and pulls the huge biplane out of its hanger by hand (evidently it doesn’t weigh that much). He and his assistants check over the motor and try to get the propeller started. We cut to a shot of the propeller at full speed, then back to a long shot of the men pushing the machine out onto the field into position for takeoff. Cody puts on goggles and gloves and gets into the seat. Then the plane begins its long taxi down the field (seen from multiple camera positions). It bounces along a bit, but never achieves flight before tipping over and crashing nose-first into the ground. The camera lingers on the wreckage.

When I was a kid, it seemed like the most frequent “old movie footage” on television was images of people with wings strapped to their backs or sitting in bizarre contraptions of one kind of another that were supposedly early attempts to fly. I suspect that most of them were filmed solely for comedic effect. This movie does look like a more convincing piece of newsreel footage, although the editing and camera angles suggest that there was a good deal of preparation put into it. Cody seems to be alright at the end, but the wooden structure of the plane has suffered quite a bit of damage from the impact. It’s important to remember that by 1910, powered flight was already accomplished, but, like the motion pictures, it was still a wide-open field of pioneers and experimenters. This fellow’s model didn’t work out, but he may have learned something useful in the attempt.

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Starring: M. Cody

Run Time: 4 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Troubles of a Grasswidower (1908)

For my contribution to the “Food in Film”  Blogathon, I’m taking  a look at an early example of a typical gender-bending situational comedy: one in which a man is left to his own devices and has to perform “women’s work” for himself, including shopping for food and cooking. Max Linder runs with this premise in this Nickelodeon-Era comedy.

Unhappy home life.

The movie begins with Max having a meal with his wife. Max reads the paper and ignores her. She seems bored and agitated. She tries to speak to him and he ignores her until she snatches the paper away. He demands it back and she gives it to him but begins crying. Max puts his fingers in his ears. This causes her to get up, throw her napkin down and stalk across the room, to where she puts on her hat, takes her coat and leaves. Max gets up and dances a jig, then reads his paper.

The next scene begins with the intertitle “back to mother” and we see the wife enter a room and meet another woman who gestures with sympathetic horror. Then the intertitle says “washing the dishes.” We are back with Max, who has finished his paper. He gathers things from the table on a tray, pouring unfinished glasses of wine back into the decanter. As he piles up more and more of the service, it becomes increasingly awkward or him, and soon he is embracing the tray to keep it all from spilling off. He walks delicately into the kitchen, putting the tray on a cutting board, and brings over a basin of water. We cut now to a closer shot of Max gingerly wiping off the dirty dishes with a dripping brush. It finally occurs to him to put on some gloves, but he is just as delicate with the dirty items when he is wearing them. When he tries to wash a bottle, he can’t figure out how to get the brush inside to scrub. Finally, he takes the whole tray down to the street, where there is a hose in a bucket and he sprays all of his dirty dishes with the hose. Satisfied, he now returns to the kitchen, but he’s not paying attention when he tries to put the tray on the cutting board and it drops, all of the now “clean” dishes shattering on the floor. He sweeps them up with a broom, but then loses interest and leaves in annoyance.

Eeeww!

The next scene is labeled “the market” and it calls attention to the fact that men at this time were not expected to act as consumers. Max is in his silk hat and a topcoat and he approaches the front of a grocer’s, where a woman immediately comes out to serve him. She piles various goods on him and takes his money, but he has no bag or other method to hold his purchases, so once again he stands awkwardly embracing the items. He walks off, but as he reaches the corner he sees a young lady of his acquaintance, so he puts some of his haul behind him and holds the rest behind his back as he speaks to her. A street kid sees the goods he has left on the ground and snatches them, running off, and Max immediately pursues, which reduces his lady friend to laughter. Max catches the kid after a short chase and throws his carrots at him before retrieving his other groceries, all of which have now been on the ground at least once. Picking things up, he of course loses his hat, and there is quite a challenge getting his load back under control.

The next scene is “cooking dinner” and it is the real crux of this movie’s relevance to this blogathon. Max brings all his goods into the kitchen, still wearing his silk hat. He tries to move the basin of water but winds up spilling it all over. He takes off some of his fancy outer clothing and puts on an apron. Then he takes out a large bird for cooking and begins to pluck it. The camera once again switches to a closer angle, and indeed we seem to be in a completely different room as we watch Max’s half-hearted effort to pluck the bird. He takes out some scissors and snips off pieces of the wing, but the bird seems half-prepared at best when he puts it in the pot. He breaks an egg with a knife and drops it in, but most of the shell goes in with the edible part and he tries to scrape it out. He throws in various vegetables and peels a potato over the pot (so most of the peel goes in as well). He pours a copious amount of wine over the pot and sprinkles some spice. Then he lights a match and starts the fire underneath the pot, and makes a show of stirring the mixture. Then he seems to forget about it as he starts polishing a shoe right there on the counter. He spills most of the shoe polish and tries to spoon it back into the bottle, then he remembers his meal and stirs it with the same spoon. He tastes it and adds some more pepper, which makes him sneeze the pot off of the oven.

Clueless in the kitchen.

The next scene is labeled “Housekeeping.” Max comes into the bedroom and starts to undress, but he notices that the bed is a mess, he moves mattresses and sheets around, generally making the bed lumpier than before and them climbs in with most of his clothes on. The next morning Max cannot find his favorite tie. He gets out of bed and puts on a collar, then he starts looking in every possible place, including the bed, the dresser, and under the bed. Each place he looks, he throws the neatly folded contents on the ground, then moves on. He begins tearing up the drawers in the study and the sitting room, even looking inside potted plants. The house is rapidly becoming a disaster area, and this only reaches new extremes when he topples a secretary. Now his wife and her mother arrive to find him in the wreckage and he pleads with her to return to him.

The trope of the reversal of gender roles was a common one in comedy, right up to the Golden Age of television: “The Honeymooners,” “I Love Lucy,” “The Flintstones” and many others would use it decades after this. Max Linder probably didn’t invent the idea: in the nineteenth century gender determined the division of labor to an enormous degree, which would lend powerful comedic possibilities for use on the vaudeville stage and elsewhere. What this movie emphasizes for us is that even seemingly simple tasks like shopping and clearing the table (never mind the more obvious cases of cooking and washing dishes) were imagined as beyond the capacity of a man. The grocer’s is an alien environment for Max, and he daren’t allow a young lady friend to see him carting groceries. Food, in short, was entirely a woman’s domain, from the conception to the aftermath. All a man knew how to do was hold a knife and fork. That said, it struck me that Max was very “French” in his failed attempt at cooking – he even thought to use some seasoning on the bird, something which escapes first-time cooks today!

This has been my contribution to the “Food in Film” blogathon, hosted by Speakeasy and Silver Screenings. Be sure to head over and check out the other entries!

Director: Max Linder

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Max Linder

Run Time: 10 Min

You can watch it for free: here.