Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

A Bird’s a Bird (1915)

Just in time for the holidays comes this Keystone comedy about two husbands trying to provide a turkey for their wives’ tables. Lacking in big names, this one gives a good example of the more “pedestrian” comic output of the studio.

Chester Conklin plays Mr. Walrus, who we meet at a raffle, where he is buying up tickets in hopes of winning the grand prize – a turkey to take home for dinner. Despite his multiple tickets, when the wheel is spun he is not the winner. Now Mr. Spegle (Harry D. Ward dressed to look sort of like Ford Sterling) comes along and buys one ticket, then tricks the “foreigner” (William Hauber) who legitimately won into giving him his ticket and he takes home the bird. Walrus goes home to wife Minta Durfee and explains that he wasn’t able to get a turkey, and she expresses anxiety as her parents are coming for dinner and expect meat. A close up on a parrot in a cage gives Walrus an idea and he makes an incompetent effort to catch it, but is caught in the act by Minta. He then wonders how cat meat would taste as he sits by the family pet. This time Minta takes his knife away. Luckily, however, the Spegles are just next door and Mr. Spegle puts the turkey in the window to cool, having just finished roasting it. Now the foreigner walks up and plants a bomb in the turkey. Walrus takes the rather more American-materialist form of revenge by taking the turkey. He presents it to Minta just as she is despairing of having a decent dinner for her parents. She is suspicious at first and checks to make sure the parrot is still alive, but overjoyed once she is convinced it’s a real turkey. She instructs him to set the table, and he does a quick pratfall where he tries to lean on one of the extended “arms” after opening it out and knocks all of their good china on the floor. He also “presses” his suit by laying it out on a window seat and sitting on it. Minta meets her parents at the door and invites the neighbors, Mr. & Mrs. Spegle over to meet them. Of course, they are asked to stay for dinner, and Mr. Spegle recognizes the bird. Just as he is announcing Walrus’s crime, the foreigner comes up to watch the results of his handywork, but a fight breaks out among the family and the bird gets tossed out the window, the explosion throws the foreigner far into the air and he lands on Minta’s dad, crashing through the ceiling. The final minutes of the film are just the foreigner, Walrus , and Spegle locked in silly combat and comeuppance.

I think this movie would have benefitted from the presence of a Fatty Arbuckle, Mable Normand, or even a (real) Ford Sterling. None of the players seems to be able to carry it as is. We don’t expect any kind of subtlety in a Keystone plot, but this one is very weak sauce indeed. As grim as the section is in which Conklin seems to be contemplating serving a household pet to his in-laws, this is the part with the greatest comedic potential, but it is left to sit – possibly because this isn’t a cartoon and chasing live animals around wasn’t going to be feasible in single takes (though Normand had handled the concept admirably in “A Little Hero”). The other piece of this movie is the various dinner-table arguments that take place while the bomb ticks away, reminding me of Hitchcock’s famous “bomb theory” of suspense, which should also translate to comedy: things are funnier if you know that all the tomfoolery is just a distraction from a ticking bomb, or so you might think. Here, it doesn’t seem to work, maybe because the audience doesn’t really trust the narrative to stick to any logical rhythm – the bomb’s going to go off when it feels like it, not when it is supposed to, so we lose that sense of urgency. At any rate, this movie isn’t a complete washout, but it’s not among the best works in Keystone’s canon.

Director: Unknown (possibly Walter Wright)

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Chester Conklin, Minta Durfee, Harry Ward, Willaim Hauber, Alice Davenport, Fred Hibbard

Run Time: 13 Min

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

 

Camille (1921)

The classic romantic story of a sex worker with a heart of gold is remade in modern times, starring now-huge-names Rudolph Valentino and Alla Nazimova. The look is a decided break with traditions established in the teens, and heralds the coming of the “roaring twenties” in all their glory.

Camille-newspapaerad1922

The movie begins with a wide shot of a grand staircase, filled with people in evening clothes, ostensibly in Paris in the winter (there are no exteriors in this part of the movie, so it could be anywhere/when). We close in on Armand (Valentino) and his pal Gaston (Rex Cherryman), who play law students. Gaston is the elder, more jaded of the pair, while Armand seems to be thrilled by high society. When Camille (Nazimova) emerges, with a coterie of gentlemen trailing after her, Armand is immediately smitten, and asks Gaston about her. She is known as “the Lady with the Camellias” and is in the process of throwing over her current escort for a more high-ranking member of the aristocracy. Gaston introduces her, and she seems to lose interest in her high-stakes quarry for a moment when she sees how handsome Armand is. She lets it be known that there will be an after-party at her place and Gaston agrees to take his aunt and Armand along for the ride.

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The Haunted Castle (1921)

Originally released with the more prosaic title “Schloss Vogelöd” (“Castle Vogelöd”), this early work by F.W. Murnau skirts the edges of horror and Expressionism, without fully committing to either. Murnau does show his talent for psychological drama here, as well as atmosphere and narrative structure.

The movie begins by showing us a large manor, drenched in rain. We learn from intertitles that this is the home of Lord von Vogelschrey (Arnold Korff) and that the traditional hunting season has been rained out for several days. We move to the interior of the castle and see the host and his bored guests, who are playing cards, smoking, reading newspapers and the like. A servant enters the room and announces Count Oetsch (Lothar Mehnert), which seems to disconcert everyone. Count Oetsch enters and Vogelschrey takes him aside to another room. The guests outside gossip and we learn that the count got his title a few years ago on the death of his brother by shooting, and that he is suspected of the crime. This rumor gets nourished by a retired Judge of the District Court. Vogelscrhey informs Oetsch that his brother’s widow will soon be here, implying that he (Oetsch) should leave, but Oetsch acts nonchalant and makes it clear he intends to stay.

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The Phantom Carriage (1921)

This spooky film from Sweden adds another piece to my “history of horror” that I wasn’t able to get to in the month of October this year. Never mind, November is still a good creepy month, and this movie transcends the horror genre by dealing with issues of morality and personal responsibility, even as it depicts a skeletal horse pulling a transparent buggy.

Phantom Carriage1

As the film opens, a young woman (Astrid Holm) is sick in bed, those around her call her “Sister Edit,” and expect her soon to die. We learn that she is with the Salvation Army, that it is New Year’s Eve, and that she has only one wish: to speak with someone named David Holm. His name seems to scandalize her caretakers, but they cannot ignore a dying request, and a search for David is mounted. When we find him (played by director Victor Sjöstrom), he is in a graveyard, enjoying a final toast with other down-and-outs. He tells a story that appears in flashbacks.

Phantom Carriage4

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Artheme Swallows His Clarinet (1912)

This very French farce comes from a time when national cinematic styles were still being determined and when France’s film product was just starting to be challenged economically by the output of the United States. This movie may have been seen around the world at the time, but it was nearly lost at the time of its restoration, with only two known prints to work from.

Artheme Swallows His Clarinet

Our lead character is a short man in a hat and baggy jacket. He is seen strolling along a path in a park, playing his clarinet as he walks. A policeman comes up to him and interrupts, showing us with gestures as he asks Artheme to stop playing. Artheme agrees and walks off. The next scene shows him as he walks up to a streetcar. A crowd is clamoring to get on board, and he begins to play again. The film speeds up and everyone is able to board quickly with the help of his music. He tips his hat to the streetcar as it pulls away. Now he comes to a group of workmen, who are pulling a heavy cabinet on a rope up the side of the building. When he starts to play, they forget their labors and start to dance, but unfortunately, Artheme was standing beneath the cabinet and when they let go the rope it crashes down on him! When they recover and pull him out from under, we see that his clarinet was pushed back into his mouth and it now penetrates his head – the mouthpiece jutting out from the back and the horn sticking out of his mouth. He seems not to be in much pain, however, and rather than horror, the workmen respond with mirth at his plight.

Artheme Swallows His Clarinet1

Artheme leaves and walks on, looking for someone to help him pull it out again. He first finds a policeman, but despite his best efforts, the instrument will not budge. He approaches another man in the park, who recruits more help to get more force on the clarinet, and soon there is a line of people tugging on a rope attached to it. When they slip and lose their grip, however, the whole crowd falls backward into a lake. Artheme sits on a bench at the seashore and a man with a top hat and funny beard walks up, reading from a musical score. He comes behind Artheme and plays the clarinet through his head, making Artheme hold up the music for him. Annoyed at being reduced to a music stand, Artheme hits him and pushes him away. He now comes to a blacksmith’s shop, where men are working with hammers at an anvil. He pleads with them to help him and places his head upon the anvil. A man with a large hammer strikes the mouthpiece until the instrument has been forced out of his mouth. He stands up again, apparently no worse for the experience (and happily without a big hole in the back of his head). Nevertheless, they pick him up and dunk his head into a bucket of water several times, giving us one final laugh as the film ends.

Artheme Swallows His Clarinet2

It’s easy to imagine the early Surrealists seeing this movie in youth or even childhood and loving it. It has all of the elements – including violence and bodily disfigurement – that would fascinate them later. The star and director was Ernest Servaès, who did a series of “Artheme” films for the next few years, although I believe the company he worked for, Eclipse, folded during the First World War and there isn’t much trace of him after that. According to imdb, he lived long enough to make two movies named “Mirelle,” one in 1922 and one in 1934, with that last version being the only feature length film of his career. He has a delightful personality as a French comedian, although he lacks the physicality of a Keaton or a Chaplin and probably would never have made a big hit in the USA. The effect of the clarinet is uneven, Ernest has to keep his head ducked low in order for it to look straight, and much of the time it is obvious that it is constructed of two separate pieces attached to the back of his head and stuck in his mouth. This movie has a light touch that is appealing today. I liked the images of the French coast (the water is rough and full of large, fast-moving waves) and the location shots on the streets, which give a definite sense of place; most of the park looks just like the parks we’ve seen in Keystone comedies, which is itself interesting – I guess even a hundred years ago, a park was a park.

Director: Ernest Servaès

Camera: Émile Pierre

Starring: Ernest Servaès

Run Time: 4 min, 12 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Destiny (1921)

Originally titled “Der Müde Tod,” which in German means “The Weary Death,” this feature film by Fritz Lang is the first anthology film to be added to my “history of horror.” Less outspokenly Expressionist than some of the movies I reviewed last year, it is nonetheless an important film in the rise of the German film industry as a standard-setter in the cinematic art.

Der Mude Tod

The movie begins by showing a young couple (Lil Dagover and Walter Janssen) on a carriage ride in the country. They are annoying the old woman in the carriage with them by constantly showing how in love they are. A tall figure in dark clothing (Bernhard Goetzke) flags down the carriage and boards. His aspect is so sinister that the old woman chooses to walk the rest of the way. He is referred to as “the Stranger” in the subtitles, and he settles on a piece of land near the cemetery, alarming the leading citizens of the town, who are portrayed as venal and selfish, and appear to conduct important business at the local tavern. The Stranger erects a huge wall around his property, with no evident door, gate, or other aperture, though he can get in and out, as shown by his frequent appearances in town. Although the townsfolk fear the Stranger, they are eager to discover the secret of his wall, perhaps suspecting that he keeps treasure hidden inside. One day the Stranger and the loving couple meet again at the tavern, and the young man leaves with the Stranger, which terrifies the young woman when she finds out and she goes to the wall and sees the images of dead people there – the last of which is her lover – entering the wall.

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The Prolific Magical Egg (1902)

This trick film from Georges Méliès depicts a standard magic show, as one might have seen in the Theatre Robert-Houdin. We squeeze it into our “History of Horror” because it also shows some of the darker implications of magic and its uses.

Prolific Magical Egg

Méliès appears on a proscenium-style set which resembles a classroom – a blackboard with what looks like a mathematical formula written on it is in the background. There are also two stands erected to either side of the performer, holding up a board between them. He bows and produces a handkerchief. He folds this into his hand and moves close to the camera so that the audience can see his hands, when he opens it, the handkerchief has become an egg. He makes it disappear and reappear an additional time and then retreats to the part of the stage where the stands are erected. The egg suddenly enlarges to the size of his head and he places it on the board. Now he quickly paints a face on it and with gestures, causes it to grow even larger. It fades away to be replaced by a disembodied woman’s head, gargantuan next to the magician. She splits into three enormous heads, which space out along the board. When they move together and recombine into the first head, Méliès goes to kiss her, but now it transforms into an egg-shaped clown’s head, similar to the crude painted face he had first placed on the egg. Méliès laughs and it becomes a painted egg again, then he gestures for it to shrink back down and picks it up. He tosses it into the air and it becomes again a normal egg, which he makes disappear, pretending that he has eaten it. He leaps up onto the board and becomes a skeleton. Now a liveried servant comes out and removes the skeleton. Happy Halloween!

Prolific Magical Egg1

The most interesting piece of this movie is probably the least obvious to modern viewers: Méliès actually zooms in on his hands through the simple expedient of walking upstage towards the camera. As a result, he is no longer framed in a long shot, with his entire body, including feet, visible to the audience. We only see him from approximately the waste up. This sort of thing was still somewhat controversial a decade or so later when feature films were becoming popular. Some critics felt that it was disturbing, or inappropriate somehow to show only parts of bodies on the camera, instead of using it to film a staged performance as it would be seen from the back rows, with entire bodies of everyone in the scene visible at all times. Of course, within a few years medium shots would be no big deal, but they are very rare in 1902. The disembodied heads and enlarging egg were accomplished using a split screen and moving the camera closer, but Méliès had already done this in “The Man with the Rubber Head” by this time. The ending is the most “horror” aspect, with the skeleton briefly animate, but seemingly dead when the servant comes out to remove it. I thought at first that this was an unfortunate side effect of eating prolific magical eggs, but the Star Films Catalog suggests that there is some missing footage at the beginning in which the skeleton is brought out and transforms into the magician – perhaps he is himself a kind of undead illusion.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 2 Min

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

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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