Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

The Enchanted Well (1903)

For this week’s instalment in my “History of Horror,” I’m looking at another of the early films of Georges Méliès that plays with infernal concepts and imagery for the entertainment of an audience. Whimsy, special effects, and rapid action define the scene.

Enchanted Well

A proscenium-style set displays a rural town, with a well placed at the center of the stage. A group of people in peasant clothing assemble at the well, then all go off in different directions. Now a country bumpkin approaches the well, followed by an old crone, who entreats him. He responds by chasing her off, and she makes mystical motions over the well, cursing it. The bumpkin draws water from the well, and pours it into a bucket, but the bucket suddenly bursts into flames as a demon leers forth from the well. The peasant fights with the demon, and it disappears, but now the well itself shoots forth cardboard flames, and it rises into the air, becoming first a tower, and then a furnace with two snakes coming out of it. The peasant fights the snakes, and then faces devils with pitchforks, and finally a giant snake that almost drags him into the furnace before it turns back into a well and spews forth human-sized frogs, which catch him and throw him down the well. The bumpkin manages to climb back out of the well, dripping with water, but the well moves and then turns into the Devil himself. This causes the people of the town to assemble and at first they confront the Devil, but he makes a motion and they all bow down. Then he turns into a bat and flies away.

Enchanted Well1

Méliès here shows a very traditional Medieval view of witches and their compacts with the Devil (despite current Wiccan propaganda, the word “witch” in pretty much all European languages is associated with malice and evil). The witch curses the well water out of spite when the bumpkin does not give what she asks – in the Star Catalog description it claims all she was asking for was alms – and soon her familiar spirits and demons are plaguing the man and the town itself. Although Satan does fly off at the end, there is no sign he has been vanquished, having established himself as “Lord of This World” by making the peasants bow and depriving the village of its only water supply by taking the well away, perhaps destroying the entire community over this minor slight. No wonder it was necessary to fight witches with fire and torture! In the world of Méliès films of course, this is less frightening, and more fun, than it sounds, and the fast-paced action and torments of the bumpkin are played for slapstick humor, and even small children will be more amused by the large eyes of the snakes than frightened. There are a number of very rapid substitution splices, showing the Méliès has now mastered his special effects in these longer sequences, where before one or two appearances/disappearances were all we could expect. Judging by how he moves, I believe the bumpkin was played by Méliès himself, though he may have been the Devil as well.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown, Georges Méliès

Run Time: 4 Min

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

Upside Down, or the Human Flies (1899)

For my first post of this October, I’m reaching back somewhat into the “history of horror” to find a rare pre-twentieth century supernatural movie that isn’t by Georges Méliès. It may not be that frightening, but it was meant the thrill audiences of the day through the use of special effects.

The movie begins by showing a group of people huddled around a table clasping hands, perhaps in a séance or over a Ouija board. A man in a tuxedo and top hat rises and places an umbrella upright on the floor, balancing his top hat on it and drawing the others’ attention to himself. He levitates his hat to the ceiling and then, when one seated man laughs as if the trick is inadequate, he gestures, causing him and the others to rise out of their chairs, seemingly at his will. Suddenly he disappears and the spectators all jump into the air simultaneously. An edit occurs and suddenly all of them are on the ceiling. Apparently gravity has been reversed, because try as they will, none can get back down to the floor. One woman tries to reach it with the umbrella, and some try standing on their heads, but they are trapped on the ceiling as the movie ends.

RW Paul

This movie is a simple trick film, achieved with two splices and turning the camera upside down, although it was presumably necessary to have a backdrop that could be flipped as well. Although it isn’t a horror movie by modern standards, it does show people being punished and apparently distressed by a magical effect, and thus joins the list of precursors to the genre. It was produced by British film pioneer Robert W Paul, whose work is often ignored today, although he was contemporary with Edison, Méliès, and Lumière. This is the earliest example I have seen of people “turned upside down” in cinema, which we have seen later examples of in “The Human Fly” by Méliès, and “Kiriki Japanese Acrobats” by Segundo de Chomón.

Director: Walter R. Booth

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown, possibly Walter R. Booth

Run Time: 1 Min, 30 sec

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

The Nut (1921)

Happy Silent Movie Day, and welcome to my review. In the 1920s, Douglas Fairbanks began a transition as a star to become known mostly for what he is remembered for today – swashbuckling, derring-do, and heroism. But in the teens, he had been a promulgator of physical and situational comedy grounded in athleticism and pep (in fact, he was one of the only film comedians of the time who worked exclusively in feature-length format). One hundred years ago, he still had some funny ideas to work out, and this movie is an example of his earlier style, carried over into the 1920s, and with all the film technique he had learned after six years in the business.

Nut-1921

The movie begins with a series of intertitles that set the scene for us. Doug’s character is Charlie Jackson, an aspiring inventor. Like so many of Doug’s characters, he is in love, and bends all of his energies and attention to The Girl, a neighbor in his Greenwich Village apartment house named Estrell (Marguerite De La Motte). The first scenes of the film focus on the Rube-Goldberg-like inventions Doug has developed as “labor saving” devices. His bed rolls him over to a pool and dumps him in, where spinning brushes apply soap to his body, then the floor raises him up to automatic towel-ers, and a moving sidewalk cruises him past several closets where mechanical arms help him choose clothing and dress himself. It all looks terribly inefficient and inconvenient, but it does show a man always looking for a new way to do things. Once this morning ritual is complete, he crosses the courtyard and climbs to the balcony of his beloved, who treats him politely but distantly, indicating that she is not sold on him as yet. We learn from intertitles that she is an educational reformer who believes that if lower class children spend one hour a day in the homes of the rich, they will grow up to be productive and escape poverty. We see her taking care of a brood of such kids in her own fancy apartment.

Nut

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Silent Movie Day Announcement!

This is a quick post to notify readers that I will be participating in the “Silent Movie Day” blogathon, hosted by Silentology and the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood blogs. It takes place on September 29 (the first ever official National Silent Movie Day), and I will be reviewing “The Nut” starring Douglas Fairbanks. Mark your calendars and check out the other blogs participating as well!

The Delicatessen Shop (1915)

As with last week’s post, “The Conquest of Canaan,” this is a movie I watched during the Cinecon online film festival this year, and like many movies you can see there, it’s hard to find otherwise. Hence, I’ve only had the chance to see it once to prepare this review.

Delicatessen Shop

Joe Weber and Lew Fields were “Dutch” comedians from Vaudeville, who did an immigrant act based on malapropisms and misunderstandings, Lew as the smart, skinny one, and Joe as the fat, dumb one. Relatively little of this movie takes place in the delicatessen in which they apparently work together, Almost immediately after the credits, they break out into a huge fight, breaking up and throwing everything in the store at each other. This is interrupted when one of their wives shows up and says “the kids have eloped” – apparently referring to one another’s daughter and son. They go into a lengthy Keystone-style chase with cars and horse wagons, but only get there after the minister pronounces the kids man and wife. They make common cause, but somehow wind up in jail. They then go through an elaborate escape and are chased by cops until the climactic crash-up.

Joe-Weber-1901

Joe Weber in 1901

This movie follows a pretty standard formula for slapstick, and is essentially built around two comedy chases. The action was so fast most of the time, I had a hard time getting an un-blurry screenshot. It was funny at times, if childishly so, but I would guess that Weber & Fields were better when they could use their voices. According to online sources, they had broken up in 1904, and Fields went on to become a successful theater owner and producer. There were various reunions, most famously their first one in 1912 in which they performed as a duo at one of Weber’s theaters, and presumably in 1915 they were still friendly enough to work together on this and a few other movies (I believe the intro at Cinecon said three, but I could be misremembering as I didn’t make a note). The synopsis published in “Moving Picture World” focuses on the background to the plot seen here, explaining that the two friends have run their shop for years; their friendship deteriorating into suspicion and jealousy as it became more successful: “at night each slept on one side of the cash register.” Thus, two Jewish actors used Jewish stereotypes to create comedy for a mixed audience of Jews and non-Jews.

Lew_Fields_(SAYRE_895)

Lew Fields in 1912.

The film making for this movie is pretty lackluster for 1915. Produced in Fort Lee at the World Film Company, it was presumably a second-string production for that short-lived but dynamic studio. Editing is minimal, and the use of the chase format allows them to re-use shots for both the pursued and pursuer, economizing on camera set ups. The sets are simplistic, reminiscent of an earlier era in cinema, and the acting is predictably too broad, as is often the case when stage actors first go on the big screen. Worth it mostly because it’s a rare chance to see old vaudevillians in action, otherwise Weber & Fields would just be fragments of old reviews and promotional posters to us now.

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Joe Weber, Lew Fields

Run Time: 8 Min

Not currently available for free online. If you find it, please comment and provide a link.

The Conquest of Canaan (1921)

This feature-length interpretation of one of the works of Booth Tarkington was screened last weekend as part of the Cinecon online film festival. As is usually the case with the rare movies I can see through Cinecon, I’ve only been able to watch it once, so this review should be read with that limited exposure in mind.

Conquest_of_Canaan_poster

The Town of Canaan, Indiana, is dominated by Judge Pike, who owns a crusading newspaper that celebrates lynchings. He is opposed by Joe, a local street hood (Thomas Meighan) who loves Ariel (Doris Kenyon), daughter of an impoverished artist from a wealthy family. Pike’s daughter is the lovely Diana Allen, who is having a coming-out party to which almost everyone in town is coming. Joe is not welcome, but he goes to keep an eye on Ariel. This only enrages the judge further, who begins a campaign to keep Joe out of honest work, which drives him to the criminal underworld of the city, an area known as “Beaver Beach.” Meanwhile, Ariel’s rich uncle has died, making it possible for her father to finance their move to Paris. On the way out, she encourages Joe to study law and make something of himself.

Conquest of Canaan

Joe moves to New York, and working at a shipyard by day, goes to night school and does just that. He decides to move back to Canaan to set up a practice, only to find that the judge and everyone else still stigmatizes him as an enemy of decency. When Ariel comes back, however, she is a famous socialite, and the town forgets that it used to treat her the same as Joe, crowding the train station to welcome her back while Joe gets drunk on bootleg whisky to forget his trouble. She calls on him, which causes a split between her and Pike, while the gossips of town say things like, “That’s what living in Paris will do to a girl.”

COnquest of Canaan1

Meanwhile, a new sub-plot develops about a Beaver Beach girl and her husband, who suspects her of cheating on him with a local hood. The husband sees the two of them together in a dive, and he shoots him. Of course, they go to Joe for a defense lawyer. Meanwhile, in a sort of metaphor, Judge Pike and his minions get the idea that Joe’s dog is rabid and chase him through the streets until Joe shows up and shames them. Then the husband shows up and they decide that lynching him sounds like a good idea, although he surrenders willingly to the police, who manage to get him to jail. The movie turns into a courtroom drama as Joe tries to defend him, but meanwhile Pike is inciting a mob outside the courthouse. They burst in just as the Beaver Beach bar owner is about to give critical evidence, and it looks like the husband will hang, but the barkeep reveals that Pike is the true owner and somehow this results in acquittal. The husband goes free and Joe and Ariel are able to marry. The end.

COnquest of Canaan2

This movie, while set in Indiana, was in fact shot in the town of Asheville, North Carolina, today a kind of liberal artistic enclave in the largely conservative South. It probably served well enough for an Anytown, USA, at the time, and at least had the advantage of not being recognizably Los Angeles or filled with palm trees and Mexican-influenced architecture. Booth Tarkington, the author, was a tremendously popular author and associated with “Midwesterner” literature that romanticized the center of the country and the salt-of-the-Earth people who dwelt there. This fits pretty well with trends in popular cinema, that produced down-homey characterizations such as we saw in “Way Down East” and “Tol’able David.” Tarkington would continue to be drawn from for “wholesome entertainment” in movies for years to come.

Conquest of Canaan3

The big problem with the plot of the film is that the denouement makes little sense. How does the identity of the owner of a tavern alter the question of whether another man is a murderer? It might take some of the wind out of his crusading sails, if published in a newspaper, but it’s unlikely to calm a raging mob in the moment of passion before they haul out a man to be lynched. It certainly has no bearing whatsoever from a legal standpoint, and should have no effect on the verdict of the jury (indeed, the judge should have it stricken from the record as irrelevant). According to the introduction given at Cinecon, this was just as nonsensical in the book, so we can’t accuse Director Roy William Neill of garbling Tarkington’s message. Apparently both felt that it made for good drama, or just found themselves written into a corner with no other clear resolution.

Conquest of Canaan4

Another interesting aspect of this movie is that it is critical of lynching and vigilantism, both of which were scourges of that Middle America which Tarkington so famously celebrated – the rise of a new KKK would see its largest membership success in his home State of Indiana. This version avoids any discussion of the issue in terms of race, however, unlike Oscar Micheaux in “Within Our Gates.” If I recall correctly from my single viewing, the first instance of the judge’s newspaper celebrating a lynching mentions that the victim was Black, but no Black people are seen in this movie, we only read about him in an insert shot. On the one hand, by making the potential lynching focus on a white man, we could argue that the director is trying to universalize the experience and make his mostly white audience see the horror more clearly, the more effectively to drive home his lesson that it is always a bad thing. On the other hand, by failing to clearly condemn lynchings of African Americans (which were by far more common), the movie leaves its audience a moral “out” that perhaps it doesn’t apply equally; maybe lynching is truly only objectionable when it is done to “us” not “them.”

Conquest of Canaan5

Overall, this is a well-made drama that takes advantage of good acting and camera work, and a location that gives it more authenticity than it would have if made in Hollywood. We don’t often get to see 100-year-old images of North Carolina streets and architecture, so it’s historically interesting from that point of view. It suffers somewhat from its source material and the usual blindness of privilege, but was still good to see.

Director: Roy William Neill

Camera: Harry Perry

Starring: Thomas Meighan, Doris Kenyon, Diana Allen, Henry Hallam

Run Time: 1 hr, 10 Min

I have not found this available for free online, however, you may watch a trailer for free: here.

Arbuckle and Rappe, 100 Years Later

On Labor Day weekend, 1921, at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco, California, a party took place that caused the death of a woman, the end of a man’s career, and ultimately the implementation of the Motion Picture Code that changed how the movie business operated in Hollywood. Myths about that party abound, and in fact these myths constitute some of the earliest awareness many people have about the silent era. Not surprisingly, silent film buffs have long been dedicated to correcting these myths, but in doing so, some have swung equally far in presenting “disinformation from the other side.” In honor of this strange centenary, I have spent time reading up on this event and have come to some conclusions – some of which may challenge received wisdom on the topic.

Rappe

Virginia Rappe

So, what really happened? Well, some facts everyone can agree on. Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle went up to San Francisco on Labor Day weekend, having just wrapped a grueling shooting schedule to produce three features at once, and, along with two friends checked in to three rooms on the twelfth floor of the St. Francis hotel. A party started early on the next day, with people stopping in, drifting out, and sometimes returning later. There was bootleg booze (Prohibition was on already), a phonograph playing current hits, a mixed crowd, and the big man presided in his pajamas. Several young actresses and models were among the guests, and at some point, a young woman named Virginia Rappe went into the bathroom, passing through Arbuckle’s bedroom. Somewhat later, Arbuckle went into that bedroom and the door was closed for at least a few minutes. When Arbuckle emerged, Rappe was lying on his bed in pain, and various guests went into the room to attempt to comfort her or suggest home remedies – the consensus was that she had had too much to drink. Eventually, a doctor was called, the party ended, and several days later, Rappe died from a ruptured bladder.

Roscoe_Arbuckle

Roscoe Arbuckle

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Broncho Billy and the Sheriff’s Kid (1913)

This short from Essanay is a typical “Broncho Billy” entry in which Gilbert M. Anderson plays an outlaw with a heart of gold. The company was cranking out dozens of these movies per month from its base near Chicago at this time.

Broncho Billy and the Sheriffs Kid

The movie begins with a grim shot of Broncho Billy getting locked into a cell. He wears leather wrist cuffs, a bullet belt, and a holster (despite being in jail), so we know right away that he’s a cowboy, even without a horse or a pistol. He picks at a bowl of unappetizing food and calls the jailer over to remove it, then makes a grab at the jailer through the bars and manages to secure his gun. He forces the man to unlock the cell and makes his escape. The next scene shows the jailer riding up to the sheriff’s house, where he is asleep (presumably it’s night time, though it isn’t dark at all) in the same bedroom with the crib of his small daughter. The sheriff (Harry Todd) reluctantly crawls out of bed and gets dressed to join the search. Now we see the mother (Evelyn Selbie) and child, in their night clothes, fixing food in the kitchen for him to take on the trail. The sheriff tucks the bundle under his shirt and gives each of them a kiss before going out. He rides off and we see Billy stealing food from an outdoor cabinet hung on the side of a house (the same house? It’s hard to say).

Broncho Billy and the Sheriffs Kid1

An intertitle reads “Later” and we see children dispersing from the front of a schoolhouse. Each is kissed goodbye by the teacher, a woman in a dark dress. The last one out is the sheriff’s daughter. After leaving the school, she walks home through a wild area, straying just a little off the path, and suddenly tumbling down the side of a cliff! Billy, eating nearby, hears the commotion and draws his gun. He finds the child, crumpled on the rocks, and identifies her by her writing slate, which is labeled “MAY – the sheriff’s kid.” Billy starts to leave, but, struck by his conscience, turns back and picks the child up, carrying her offscreen. He takes her back to the mother, now in day clothes with her hair up (it scarcely looks like the same actress). He places the child gently in her bed and the mother weeps over her. Billy tries to comfort the woman and she says something, which makes him look resolved and then leave. The next shot is a door with the shingle of “Dr. Brush” hanging over it. Billy walks up and pounds on the door. When the doctor comes out, he tells him he’s needed, then sneaks off while the doctor gets his bag.

Broncho Billy and the Sheriffs Kid2

Meanwhile the searchers have taken a break to eat some lunch. Suddenly, they look up with interest at something offscreen, stow their sandwiches, and get up to proceed cautiously, guns drawn. They hunker down behind a bush and see Billy coming through the brush in another shot which may or may not be anywhere near them. The sheriff fires his rifle and Billy drops his gun, pantomiming that he has been hit in the hand. We cut to a scene of the doctor giving the mother some medicine, and she shakes his hand, relieved that the child will be OK. Now Billy staggers up to a door, his wrist crudely bandaged with a bandana, and knocks, staggering in pain when the mother answers. An intertitle says “I only ask help for help,” which seems an odd way of saying he wants her to return the favor for saving her child. She seems reluctant at first but eventually pulls him into the house. Billy stops and smiles when he sees the child’s improved condition. She takes him into a back room and removes the dressing, examining the wound. Now the sheriff and his companion break off the search, so the sheriff goes back to his house, surprising the mother. He is concerned when he sees the injured child, and he speaks briefly with her, looking surprised when she points toward the door. Billy tries to get some water, knocking a bowl on the floor, which causes the sheriff to realize there’s someone in the house, The mother tries to prevent him going to look, holding his gun hand as he draws his revolver and gesturing to show that she is pleading for the outlaw. Billy hears from the other room, but, having no gun and no way out, can only expect the worst. The mother suddenly kicks the door open, handing Billy the sheriff’s rifle while still holding his revolver-hand low. Billy now has the upper hand and holds the sheriff at bay while he goes over to give the little girl a kiss. The movie ends without any more resolution than that.

Broncho Billy and the Sheriffs Kid3

Please don’t shoot my daddy!

This whole story takes 15 minutes and only two intertitles to tell. The situation is familiar enough that audiences could guess at what the characters were saying to one another, and their motivations, without any more information than that. We know Billy is a good man, even if he has done something wrong or illegal, and we know that he will save the child even at the risk of his own freedom. We also pretty much know that he isn’t going to shoot the sheriff in front of his wife and daughter, but it is a little unclear what the narrative expects to happen next. Maybe that’s why the movie ends so abruptly. One of the most interesting pieces of the film for me is the sheriff’s shooting Billy in the hand. In later Hollywood and television, it would become a cliché that good guys shot pistols out of the hands of bad guys without really hurting them = a practical impossibility, but a convention that arose because of concerns that Westerns were “too violent.” Here, Anderson graphically shows the consequences of being shot in the hand, even using stage blood on the wound and bandages, something Westerns would scrupulously avoid until Sam Peckinpah started using squibs in the 1960s. Anderson’s movies are generally (and for the most part rightly, in my opinion) remembered as simplistic moral tales, compared to the brooding ambiguity of William S. Hart, but the rules of the Western hadn’t been fully defined in 1913, and Anderson did sometimes take an interesting chance in molding them.

Director: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson, Harry Todd, Eugenia Clinchard, Evelyn Selbie, Fred Church

Run Time: 15 Min, 20 secs

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

True Heart Susie (1919)

D.W. Griffith was finishing up his Artcraft contract, preparing to make the shift over to celebrity-owned United Artists, when he put out this homey tale of rustic romance. It shows a number of his strengths as a director, more I think than the great “spectacles” with which he is associated today, though it has its underside of weirdness, like all his movies.

Trueheartsusie1919movieposter

The movie starts, as we expect from Griffith, with intertitles filled with bombastic claims and purple prose. The entire movie is “taken from real life” and will explore whether men are more motivated by the appearance of women or by their “true heart.” The first images show us the bucolic homes of William Jenkins (Robert Harron) and Susie Trueheart (Lillian Gish), who have grown up just across the road from one another. We see them at school, and when William can’t spell “anonymous” but Susie can, she goes to the head of the class. It develops that Susie has a big crush on William, to which he is completely oblivious, but nonetheless Susie interprets his words and actions to mean that he is also harboring love for her and they are destined to be married. Based on this, when he desires to go to college, she sells her beloved cow and various other farmyard resources in order to secretly sponsor him, pretending that the money comes from a foppish swell that passes through town one day and notices William for all of a second or two.

True Heart Susie

A Tale of Two Houses

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Arab Cortege, Geneva (1896)

One hundred twenty five years ago, a curious cross-cultural display was captured by one of the cameramen sent out by the Lumière brothers to capture interesting sights and sounds on their new motion picture camera, for display to curious audiences. This little snippet of film suggests much more to us today than what it shows, but it is a great historical snapshot nonetheless.

Arab Cortege

A stationary camera looks across a busy corner toward a store front marked “The Divan.” The words “des fees” are beneath. The street is crowded, with people walking in both directions, and a number of people in European garb (Genevans, presumably) line the sides of the street, looking at the passersby. In the foreground, a party of people in robes, fezzes, and other traditional “Arab” clothing parade by. Some of them are playing drums, horns and other instruments. In the background, you can see people walking in the other direction, and if you pay attention, you notice that there are Black people mixed with white. There is a brief lull in which several Swiss men in straw hats and large mustaches stare at the camera, and then a group of native-garbed Africans come past from the other direction. A woman in European clothing pulls a small child past them. Suddenly, the “staged” part of the movie evidently over, the street is filled with white people in European clothing.

Arab Cortege1

As an early film, this would have held much interest for the European audiences it targeted – the scene would be “exotic” and probably was accompanied by a short narration explaining the presence of these foreign people in the city of Geneva, and noting their “otherness” to the crowd. While Switzerland was a less multi-cultural society in the Nineteenth Century than it is today, the presence of the International Red Cross there, and the historical development of the Geneva Conventions, meant that it was a place where many diplomatic missions from around the world would converge. This scene doesn’t seem to represent a random sampling of foreigners walking down a Geneva street, however, it seems staged. Particularly the presence of the musicians in the original party of Arabs seems to suggest a deliberate spectacle, possibly in connection with an international event like a World’s Fair, or possibly the director, Alexandre Promio, set the whole thing up somehow. For us today, simply seeing the street of a European city from 1896 is exotic, with or without the presence of non-Europeans.

Director: Alexandre Promio

Camera: Alexandre Promio

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 40 Secs

You can watch it for free: here.