Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

January 1917

A new year has begun! This will forever be the year best known for the Russian Revolutions, but of course at this point in the year no one knew the days of Czradom were numbered. The First World War continues, and the USA is less determined about its “neutrality” than ever before, and by the end of the year there will be American Doughboys in France. The film industry will embrace both events as inspirations for movies, but in the meantime, the concept of “Hollywood” is finally entrenching itself as an industry, rather than as a collection of entrepreneurs and artists. This promises to be an exciting year for the Century Film Project! Let’s take a look at some of the headlines for January.

Firing line at Battle of Rafa

Firing line at Battle of Rafa

World War One:

The Battle of Rafa: The last substantial Ottoman Army garrison on the Sinai Peninsula is captured on January 9 by the Egyptian Expeditionary Force‘s Desert Column.

British armed merchantman SS Laurentic is sunk January 25 by mines off Lough Swilly (Ireland) with the loss of 354 of the 475 aboard.

Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson

Diplomacy: President Woodrow Wilson gives his “Peace without Victory” speech before Congress on January 22.

Disasters:

The Ratho rail crash occurs on January 3. NBR H class locomotive 874 Dunedin in charge of the Edinburgh to Glasgow express train collides with a light engine at Queensferry Junction, leaving 12 people dead and 46 seriously injured. The cause was found to be inadequate signaling procedures.

On January 19, a blast at a munitions factory in London kills 73 and injures over 400. The Silvertown explosion as it comes to be known, is a major cause célèbre for improving conditions in munitions factories and for workers in England generally.

On January 26, a combination of easterly gales and exceptionally high tides breached the sea-defences of the village of Hallsands, and by the end of that year only one house remained habitable. The villagers’ fight for compensation took seven years.

kingsland_explosion_newspaper_photoTerrorism: Unknown saboteurs set off the Kingsland Explosion at Kingsland (modern-day Lyndhurst, New Jersey) on January 11. This is one of the events leading to United States involvement in WWI.

Mexican Revolution: On January 28, The United States formally calls off its search for Pancho Villa. On January 30 Pershing‘s troops in Mexico begin withdrawing back to the United States.

Colonialism: Denmark sells the Danish West Indies (now the Virgin Islands) to the United States for $25 million on January 16.

Sports: The University of Oregon defeats the University of Pennsylvania 14–0 in U.S. college football‘s 3rd Annual Rose Bowl Game on January 1.

Finance: Royal Bank of Canada takes over Quebec Bank on January 2. The lack of an independent provincial bank will be an obstacle to Quebecois Separatism in years to come.

Law Enforcement: On January 25 anti-prostitution drive in San Francisco occurs and police close about 200 prostitution houses.

easy_street_1917Film:

Great Expectations” starring Jack Pickford released January 8.

Easy Street” by Charlie Chaplin, released on January 22.

Ernest Borgnine, born January 24, 1917.

Ernest Borgnine, born January 24, 1917.

Births:

Vera Zorina, dancer, actress (in “Goldwyn Follies” and “Follow the Boys”), January 2.

Jane Wyman, actress (in “Brother Rat” and “Stage Fright”), January 5.

Hilde Krahl, actress (in “Der Postmeister” and “A Devil of a Woman”), January 10.

Lally Bowers, actress and singer (in “We Joined the Navy” and “Dracula: AD 1972”), January 21.

Ernest Borgnine, actor (in “Marty” and “Escape from New York”), January 24.

Joan the Woman (1916)

Cecil B. DeMille enters the arena of the historical epic with this depiction of France’s most famous saint, starring Geraldine Farrar, who had been very successful in “Carmen” the previous year. While a bit rough in places, it is likely to be a major contender in this year’s Century Awards.

joan_the_womanThis is one of those silent movies that, unfortunately, begins with several minutes of intertitles explaining the plot. Most silent directors did their best to avoid this, but DeMille may have felt that because he was dealing with such a “serious” subject, his audiences would need a little priming to get into the mood. Anyway, after five minutes of introductory reading, we finally get to an unnecessary wraparound story. We begin in the trenches in France in 1916, where a young English soldier is digging in the dirt wall for some reason, and pulls out a sword, apparently buried there since the fifteenth century. He speculates that some “queer bloke” must have wielded it, and then responds to a call for volunteers from an officer. The officer is looking for someone to carry a very unwieldy bomb across no-man’s-land to destroy an enemy trench. He tells the soldier to think about it until midnight before making a decision whether to take on the suicide mission. Once back in his barracks, the soldier sees a vision of Joan of Arc and the real movie finally begins!

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The Captive God (1916)

In a departure from his standard Western-tough-guy, William S. Hart appears as a native Mexican warrior in this tale of Meso-American star-crossed love. Unfortunately, the available print is incomplete, but we’ll do our best to make sense of the remaining plot.

captive-godAt the beginning of the movie, we see a war between the “Maya” and the “Azteques” (note that all names differ from those in the original print as recorded by sources like imdb. More on that in a minute). Hart plays “Tonga,” the leader of the Maya side, but the Azteques apparently win this round. Montezuma, the Azteque chieftan (Robert McKim), offers “Matho” who led the attack (P. Dempster Tabler) any reward he names for routing the enemy. Matho requests his daughter, who is saddled with the unfortunate name “Tacki” in this version (Enid Markey), and Montezuma grudgingly agrees, although his daughter vows not to obey.

Screen-captures used by permission. Thanks to Christopher Bird and Fritzi of Movies Silently.

Screen-captures used by permission. Thanks to Christopher Bird and Fritzi of Movies Silently.

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The Immigrant (1917)

This was the third short Charlie Chaplin made for Mutual in 1917, coming out in June of that year. It may be the most famous of his early work, and has been a critical success since its release, unlike many of his earlier Keystone and Essanay shorts, which were often dismissed as “vulgar” at the time or frivolous afterward.

immigrant_1917This movie begins by showing us a steamer ship loaded with immigrants crossing the Atlantic. After a brief stock footage shot of a ship, and a shot of people stacked on top of one another on the deck, we see a shot of Charlie’s ass, which lingers quite a bit longer. Charlie is leaning over the railing of the ship, his feet at times going up so far it seems that he will fall in, and we get the impression that he is vomiting over the side. It’s a garden path, however, because when he turns around we see that he has caught a fish on a hook and line. He holds it up proudly, then inexplicably casts it aside, where it bites one of the sleeping passengers on the nose.

immigrant1

Hey, at least he’s upright!

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Easy Street (1917)

Charlie Chaplin’s first movie in 1917 has some surprising elements, including a reversal of his usual relationship to authority. Reflecting his improving budgets and extended production time, he built an entire street on a sound stage and used it to considerable effect.

easy_street_1917The movie begins similarly to “The Champion” and other familiar shorts, with Chaplin as the Little Tramp sleeping in the streets. He awakes to the lovely tones of Edna Purviance leading the choir at the Hope Mission, and ventures inside. The gags in the early part of the film involve sounds that the audience imagines but can’t hear – Edna’s singing, Charlie laughing during the pastor’s sermon, a neighboring parishioner trying to get Charlie to sing along with the choir, etc. Then there’s an extended bit in which Chaplin agrees to hold a baby for another parishioner, and accidentally spills the milk from its bottle onto his pants – but thinks that the baby has wet itself (and him), and tries to foist the fouled brat back onto its mother. Rather a vulgar joke for 1916!

easy-streetAnyway, the real plot of the film gets started once the sermon is over. Charlie, and a rough fellow (John Rand) who also appears to be a tramp, remain behind when the other parishioners leave. Charlie wants to talk to Edna, but the other tramp tries to steal the collection box! Charlie recovers it and returns it, and Edna encourages him to “reform” and get a job. Now that he has experience catching crooks, Charlie thinks it would be a good idea to join the police force. Although it goes against his nature, he convinces himself to go into the police station and apply.

easy-street1Now the action shifts to “Easy Street,” which appears to be the site of an eternal riot. Working-class ruffians are beating the stuffing out of the few police officers brave enough to go there, and we see them returned to the station on stretchers, their uniforms torn and shredded. Eric Campbell intimidates other rioters and controls the street as a bully, wearing his spoils – a policeman’s cap. Charlie is informed that Easy Street will be his beat, but he has no idea what he’s in for.

easy-street2

Just another day on Easy Street.

When Charlie arrives at Easy Street, the riot is over, or at least there’s a lull. Debris is strewn in the street, but things appear to be quiet. The camera tracks towards him as Campbell stalks up behind, still wearing the policeman’s cap. Charlie, finally realizing he’s in danger, sidles up to a lamppost that has a police emergency phone on it. Each time he tries to move for the phone, Eric growls at him and he panics, dropping it. Finally, he tricks Eric into looking into the receiver, giving him a chance to bop him on the head with his billy club. Eric doesn’t appear to notice, so Charlie hits him again. And again. Finally, Eric turns around and sees that he’s being hit, so Charlie tries hitting harder, but with no effect. Eric flexes his muscles and grabs the top of the lamppost, bending it down. Thinking fast, Charlie pulls the lamp over Eric’s head, turning up the gas. Eric slumps into unconsciousness, and Charlie uses the still-working phone to call for backup to arrest him. The police are very afraid to come to Easy Street, even in a large group, and when a small child points his finger at them and goes “bang!” they all skitter in fear. Finally, they drag the unconscious brute back to the station and cuff him. Charlie lights up a cigarette and starts a gas fire on the ruined lamppost.

easy-street3With things now peaceful on Easy Street, Charlie returns to walking his beat. He sees an emaciated woman (Charlotte Mineau) with a bundle hidden under her blouse. He confronts her and sees the food she has stolen. Feeling sympathetic, he goes across the street to where a fruit vendor snoozes peacefully, and steals more food for her, loading her up with ill-gotten gains. Now Edna walks up and sees Charlie 1) employed and 2) performing an act of charity (she doesn’t know the food is stolen). The grateful waif collapses from hunger and the weight of the food, so Charlie and Edna help her up the stairs to her apartment. Then Charlie escorts Edna to another apartment, which she is visiting on her missionary rounds.

easy-street4Meanwhile, Eric Campbell breaks out of the handcuffs. All of the policemen conk him on the head with their bully clubs simultaneously, repeatedly, but it does no good. He defeats them and escapes. He returns home – to his wife Charlotte! They quickly start fighting, with Charlotte throwing various pieces of crockery at Campbell, but with his great strength he gets the upper hand. One of the thrown items breaks the window of the apartment across the street, hitting the father of the family Edna is visiting, and Charlie goes back to Charlotte’s apartment to investigate. When Eric sees him, a chase begins. While this goes on, various lowlifes nab Edna and drag her to an underground lair.

Immune to billy clubs.

Immune to billy clubs.

Charlie finally overcomes Eric by running back to the apartment and dropping a heavy iron stove from the window onto Eric’s head. Now, the ruffians grab him as well. Meanwhile, Edna is being menaced by a man who uses a hypodermic needle before becoming amorous/threatening. Charlie is dropped into the same room through a manhole and accidentally sits on the needle. Suddenly, he becomes a determined fighter, knocking out the addict and taking on several toughs from the speakeasy next door. He rescues Edna and brings peace and order to Easy Street.

easy-street6This movie reminds me a lot of the old “Popeye” cartoons, which may have been partly inspired by it. Eric Campbell’s super-strong giant is much like Bluto and Charlie’s injection from the needle is sort of like Popeye after eating spinach. But, what’s really remarkable here is the way Charlie has reversed his role and that of the villains. Usually, Charlie is the underdog pursued by police. Here, he’s a cop (though he still has his own code of ethics, as we see when he steals food for a hungry woman). Usually, his antagonists are rich, snobby people, but here they are the poor. There are several indications that the rioters are meant to be read as “foreign” or immigrants as well. Most cast lists I find online indicate that some of them are “anarchists” (a political category usually associated with Eastern or Mediterranean immigrants at the time), and there is a portrait of Czar Nicholas II on the wall of the room where Edna is held. Actually, it’s hard to imagine Russian anarchists with a picture of the Czar, unless they use it for target practice, but I think the point is that these are foreigners. Immigrants are usually sympathetic figures for Chaplin, as we will soon see with “The Immigrant.” It may also surprise modern audiences to see such explicit references to drug-use in a silent comedy, but Douglas Fairbanks pushed the theme much further in “Mystery of the Leaping Fish.

Mystery of the Leaping Fish1I don’t know for sure why Chaplin chose to do this, but it definitely works. Many sources refer to this as the funniest of the comedies he made for Mutual, or even his funniest short, period. There are others I like better, including “The Cure,” “The Vagabond,” and the restored version of “Police,” but this is a contender. The street set is great, and evokes a kind of generic image of urban squalor, that could as easily be New York, LA, or London. When Eric chases him, we do get some very explicit exteriors of Los Angeles, which kind of ruins the illusion for me, but if you ignore that it’s a great location. Chaplin uses all the tricks of cinema he has learned, including a mobile camera, close-ups, and cross-cutting, but it’s still his body language that sells the narrative. He uses his full body to give shrugs and express sympathy, his face lights up when he sees Edna, and he does his patented one-foot turn-hop during the chase sequences. He repeatedly sends up the Keystone Kops, both in his own performance and his use of the other policemen. When he’s hopped up from the hypodermic, he uses his full body to fight, throwing his feet at crowds of opponents, and seems to be a dynamo of energy. The movie once again shows his talent for slapstick, as well as a newly increased confidence as a filmmaker.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Roland Totheroh

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Eric Campbell, Charlotte Mineau, Albert Austin, John Rand, Lloyd Bacon, Henry Bergman, Frank J. Coleman, Leo White

Run Time: 27 Min

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

The Return of Draw Egan (1916)

William S. Hart returns to the screen with familiar Western tropes done in a mature and morally sophisticated manner. While not as unrelentingly dark as “Hell’s Hinges,” this movie confirms that early silent audiences already knew that cowboys weren’t just kiddie fare.

return_of_draw_eganAs the movie begins, Hart is introduced as the title character, a wanted criminal with a price on his head. He has a sizeable gang of desperados with him, but he decides that the heat is too much and they should split up and “shift for themselves.” One member of the disbanding gang is Arizona Joe (Robert McKim), who “has a yellow streak a mile wide,” but hides it with bluster and bravado. Before they can go their separate ways, however, the posse catches up to them and chases them to an abandoned mountain shack they use as a hideout. There’s a pitched gun-battle, but several of the gunmen escape through a tunnel underneath the shack to a place where they’ve stashed horses. Arizona Joe is too timid to try this, and tries to sneak past the lawmen, but he’s captured on the way out.

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The Cure (1917)

This slapstick short continues Charlie Chaplin’s series with Mutual, following the release of “Easy Street” in January. Chaplin was taking longer to work on his films than he ever had before – this wasn’t released until mid-April – but the result was still very profitable for his studio.

cure_1917_posterThis movie takes place in a spa with “healing waters.” We get an insert-shot of the “discoverer” of the healing waters, a sick old man in lying in bed. Then we see a group of seemingly uptight rich people sitting around the well and drinking of the waters. Charlie arrives, apparently drunk, to be cured of his drinking. He steps in the well (but doesn’t quite fall in) on his way to the clinic. He’s having a hard enough time, but then the attendant tries to get him to walk through the revolving doors, which results in the first physical comedy routine of the movie. Charlie skillfully resists entering the building, forcing the attendant to pursue him repeatedly. Eventually, Eric Campbell, in a foot cast, wanders over as well, with predictable results. Charlie eventually gets into the building and Eric limps away in defeat.

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The Adventurer (1917)

I’m beginning the year 2017 with a review of the last movie Charlie Chaplin made in 1917, one of the funniest and most accessible of his work for Mutual Film Corporation. Chaplin finally finished out his record-breaking $670,000 contract with them when this film was released, and he turned down an offer of a million to renew, choosing instead to remain independent. This film was the first new Chaplin audiences had seen in four months, and by the time it came out he was one of the most famous men in the world.

adventurerThe movie begins with escaped-convict Charlie pursued by prison guards who could be Keystone Kops from his earliest days in cinema. He emerges from his escape tunnel on the beach to find himself next to a cop’s shotgun, and the chase is on. He quickly scoots up a cliff and drops rocks on his first pursuer, only to find one of the rocks is the shoe of another guard, with the guard still in it! Not one to complain, Charlie hurls the one guard down after the other. After several more clever incidents, Charlie winds up swimming into the ocean to escape. When the police try to follow in a rowboat, they are swamped by the waves.

adventurer1Charlie is able to get some clothes off of a bather at a nearby resort, and while he is swimming in encounters Edna Purviance’s mother drowning at the dock. Edna is nearby, at a dockside table with her suitor, Eric Campbell, and he at first boasts that he will jump in to save mother, but as he begins to strip off his clothes, it appears to occur to him that the water is cold, so she jumps in instead. Shortly thereafter, Eric and a hefty dockworker lean on the railing, causing it to collapse, and they fall in as well. Charlie manages to save all of them, although not without dumping Eric into the drink one more time for good measure, and he is taken home along with them in a limousine.

adventurer2The next morning, Charlie wakes up and thinks he might be back in jail. There are bars on the bed and stripes on his pajamas. But, the butler (Albert Austin) comes in and assures him he’s in the home of Edna and her parents, and Charlie soon comes down in suitably ill-fitting clothes to join what seems to be a perpetual cocktail party going on at the mansion. He grabs a bottle and mixes seltzer in for a big gulp. He and Eric exchange kicks in the rear, though Charlie always gets one up. Eric recognizes Charlie’s mugshot in the paper and tries to inform the hosts, but Charlie sketches Eric’s beard onto the photograph. In one famous bit, Charlie drops ice cream down his pants, and shakes in out of his trouser leg onto the back of a large, dignified woman below the balcony he’s on.

Charlie in high society

Charlie in high society

All good things must come to an end, and Charlie’s end is precipitated by the usual conceit of the scullion maid entertaining a cop (in this case a prison guard) in the kitchen. At first, Charlie thinks he will catch her in the act, but winds up being pursued himself. Eric calls in reinforcements, and soon Charlie is being chased all over the mansion, occasionally stopping to kiss Edna farewell. He disguises himself as a lamp and traps Eric in a sliding door in a wonderful chase sequence. Each time he gets ready to leave, another pursuer shows up and chases him back inside. Caught at least by the chief guard, he introduces him to Edna, and runs off to escape when the guard offers his hand to shake.

adventurer3This movie demonstrates considerable sophistication and pathos, even though it is in essence nothing more than a couple of chase scenes with material from “The Count,” “Caught in a Cabaret,” and other Tramp-amongst-the-rich shorts thrown in. Part of it is that Chaplin has now rehearsed some of these bits to perfection – the scene in the kitchen with the maid hiding the guard is a great extension of the same scene in “The Count,” for example. But, Chaplin is also a much more confident director, with more of the tools of cinematic storytelling at his disposal as well. The camera angles and cuts that let us experience his realization that he is in danger both emerging from the tunnel and when throwing rocks from the cliff would never have been seen in a 1914 Keystone movie, and so those gags couldn’t  have worked, or not nearly so well. Rarely if ever is the screen set up as a proscenium arch, the camera moves to accentuate the action and hides information from the audience until ready for a punch line. Cross-cutting sets up more complex relationships between actors in different areas than the old throw-the-rock-at-the-next-setup routine he was doing just a few years ago. Close-ups allow us to see the funny reactions of Charlie and of the often embarrassed and/or shocked rich people at the party.

This is one of the best examples of why Chaplin-itis became such a epidemic in the teens, and for those who haven’t seen any of his short subjects before, I can’t think of a better place to start.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Roland Totheroh

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Eric Campbell, Albert Austin, Henry Bergman, Marta Golden

Run Time: 27 Min

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

The Danger Girl (1916)

This short from Keystone is the first Gloria Swanson movie I’ve reviewed for this blog. It’s probably not the sort of thing most people think of when they think of Gloria, but it does demonstrate her versatility and comfort in front of the camera.

danger-girlThe movie begins with a quarrel between Myrtle Lind and Bobby Vernon. Myrtle’s in a rather unflattering Mary Pickford-style wig, which I guess signals us that she’s a “good” girl. Bobby quickly falls into the orbit of “bad” girl Helen Bray, who may be deliberately imitating (or parodying) Theda Bara’s performance in “A Fool There Was.” She’s going riding, and invites Bobby along after brushing off “Last Season’s Suitor” (A. Edward Sutherland).  Gloria shows up driving recklessly with her brother Reggie Morris (for some reason known throughout as “Honey Boy”). Reggie is hoping to hook up with the danger girl, and Gloria develops an interest in Bobby when he helps her change a tire. When all the men start gravitating to the danger girl at a party, Gloria decides to take matters into her own hands by dressing as a man and distracting her. Myrtle ends up with Reggie, once the danger girl is no longer in play, but Gloria has to avoid the attacks of Last Season’s Suitor until Bobby drives a bus through the plate-glass window of the café they’re at and rescues her. Finally, all the “good” people are happily paired up.

danger-girl1This movie is a bit hard to keep up with, in part because the prints I was able to find were of poor quality, so it’s hard to tell actors apart, but in part because the characters don’t have enough personality or back story to identify with. The danger girl is distinctive, and once Gloria’s in her masculine attire, she’s easy to track, but the others seem quite interchangeable. I’m still not 100% sure I kept the division between Myrtle and Gloria straight before the “drag” sequence, and I gave up even trying to tell Reggie from Last Year’s Suitor, although Bobby Vernon is generally recognizable.

danger-girl2For a Keystone comedy, I was a bit surprised at the “adult” approach to comedy for the first two-thirds of the movie, although once we get to the café the Mack Sennett chaos does kick into gear. The theme of women in “masculine” attire goes a bit beyond just the explicit drag sequence: the danger girl’s riding outfit includes pants and a blazer, giving her a “hard” look, and Gloria puts on overalls when she has to work on her car. I suspect this was titillating to a 1916 audience, who didn’t often see women in pants. Some of the most interesting scenes involve Gloria in the “male” domain of a saloon, where she has to figure out how to stand at the bar, and avoid being groped by a fat drunk.  We do get some basic camera movement and reasonably sophisticated editing, certainly if one compares this to the Keystone Chaplins of 1914, but it was hardly cutting-edge in production values.

Director: Clarence G. Badger

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Gloria Swanson, Bobby Vernon, Helen Bray, Myrtle Lind, A. Edward Sutherland, Reggie Morris, Josef Swickard

Run Time: 20 Min

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

Più forte che Sherlock Holmes (1913)

Alternate Titles: Stronger Than Sherlock Holmes, Sterker dan Sherlock Holmes.

This Italian short trick film is a slapstick chase-comedy in the style of Alice Guy and other directors of earlier decades. The name of Holmes is only invoked to bring in the concept of crime and pursuit, the movie has nothing to do with the writings of Arthur Conan Doyle.

piu-forte-che-sherlock-holmesThe movie begins with a man reading a magazine, while his wife peacefully dozes next to him at the table. An over-the-shoulder shot is cut in to reveal illustrations of a cop and a robber in the magazine, then the man also slumps to sleep, dropping the magazine to the floor. Two figures emerge from the magazine, by use of double exposure: One is the burglar from the illustration, and the other is a copy of the sleeping man, now dressed as the cop. He gathers up his hat and gun while the transparent burglar beckons to him from the fireplace. The burglar disappears, and the policeman pulls back a curtain, revealing an opening to the outside. In the next shot, he pursues the burglar through what looks like a thick forest, but might be simply his backyard (a fence is visible in the lower left of the screen). He fires his gun and waves his nightstick. The next shot shows us a lake, with the two figures running towards it from the opposite side. They leap in and swim towards the camera, fully clothed. About halfway, the burglar again becomes transparent through double exposure, and appears to walk on his hands across the surface of the water. He does some cartwheels to tease the cop, who is still struggling along through the water. Finally, he vanishes and appears on a bridge.

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