Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

How They Rob Men in Chicago (1900)

AKA: “How They Welcome Strangers in Chicago”

This short comedy from the Biograph studio pokes fun at urban crime. In its short running time, it manage to make a sly New York observation about the corruption of another city as well.

A man dressed as a “swell” walks onto a set representing a city street, with stores in the background. He stops and turns as a woman walks by smiling at him, and this allows a nearby thug to approach him from behind and “sap” him with a blackjack. He goes down, and the mugger grabs what he can before running off. A policeman walks on set from the other direction, and noticing the unconscious man, he leans down. Rather than helping him, he removes another item from the victim and pockets it before leaving.

New York and Chicago, as two of the largest cities in the US, have long had a friendly rivalry over their relative conditions and safety. At the time this movie was made, Chicago’s police force were untrained patrolmen who had to pay a share of their wages to political bosses, and many of them supplemented their earnings through graft and bribes. The Biograph company, located in New York, also a locus of criminal and police collusion, took advantage of the known situation in their rival city to produce this film. I admit, the policeman’s actions got a laugh out of me over a hundred and fifteen years after its production.

Director: Wallace McCutcheon

Camera: Arthur Marvin

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 30 secs

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

 

The Woman in Black (1917)

An origin story at last! “Judex” is a bit past halfway, and with this episode, the serial tells us the reason that he is…Judex.

The movie begins by showing us a woman we have not seen before, living on an estate, who receives a telegram from her son “Jacques” telling her that he is coming. This is the Countess de Tremeuse (Yvonne Dario), and the telegram opens a floodgate of memories, which we see in flashbacks. “At a time when her hair was blonde instead of gray,” the subtitles tell us (actually it looks brunette to me, but whatever), she was happily married and raising two sons of the nobility. But, her husband had dealings with the corrupt banker Favraux (Louis Leubas, here made up to look much younger than in earlier episodes). He became romantically interested in the young Countess, and tried to leverage his financial power to gain her favors. When the Countess objected, he pulled out all of his support and the family was ruined. This results in her husband’s suicide. Moments after the Count’s impetuous act, news comes that an African gold mine has paid off and so the family will not face poverty after all. When the Count is laid to rest, Madame de Tremeuse makes her sons swear that they will avenge their father when they are old enough. They do so with right-handed Roman salutes, in the style that would soon be adopted by fascists and later by Nazis.

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The Black Hand (1906)

This short from Biograph disproves the commonly-made claim that “Musketeers of Pig Alley” was the first gangster movie. Unlike that movie, however, it shows little noble or romantic in the behavior of immigrant criminals, instead emphasizing the decency of the police and of the victims.

The movie consists of just a few shots, mostly with the action staged at quite a distance from the camera. The first shot is somewhat closer, however, and gives us a view of the villains of the story as they write out a note demanding extortion money from “Mr. Angelo,” threatening him with property destruction and the abduction of his daughter if he fails to comply. The gangsters are clearly marked as Sicilian in their attire and appearance, and their poor education is emphasized in the badly spelled ransom note. Read the rest of this entry »

Joining the Swashathon

I’m a bit late with this announcement, but there’s still plenty of time before the event!

Movies Silently will be hosting the “Swashathon,” a blogathon dedicated to swashbuckling movies, TV shows, etc, and I will be participating. I will be covering the 1917 Douglas Fairbanks classic “A Modern Musketeer.” The event takes place July 14-17.

For more information, and a complete list of entries to date, see this post at Movies Silently.

The Licorice Kid (1917)

Perhaps appropriate for Mother’s Day, this episode of “Judex” is particularly child-and-family-friendly. Characters that have been peripheral up to now become central, and the hero himself does nothing but sulk, but the serial continues to deliver in terms of bizarre scheming and unexpected rescues.

In light of the title, I need to mention that the character I’ve been identifying as “Bout-de-Zan” is actually called “the Licorice Kid” in this story. Bout-de-Zan is actually the most well-known character portrayed by child actor René Poyen, who is called “the Licorice Kid” in Judex. Sorry for any confusion!

Musidora’s “eyeroll” emoji

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The Teddy Bears (1907)

This short movie from Edison mixes three kinds of fantasy together to make a somewhat incoherent family-style film. Probably one of the more expensive productions the studio brought out in the dry year of 1907, it remains fascinating from a historical perspective.

The movie begins with a shot of a rustic cottage in the woods, with snow on the ground all around it. A small figure is dancing for the camera in the front yard – it is someone dressed up as a bear. This child-bear holds a Teddy Bear as he dances. Shortly, a Mama bear (with an apron) comes out and calls him into the house, but the cub resists, he wants to go on playing. After a brief chase the Mama bear calls out the Papa bear (he wears pants and glasses). Baby starts throwing snowballs at them, but he is shortly caught and brought in by the ear. Then the family goes inside the house. They quickly return, now dressed in winter clothing for a walk. They walk offstage together, Baby again dragging his Teddy Bear along. Read the rest of this entry »

Getting Evidence (1906)

This short comedy from Edison relies on a predictable formula of repeated foiled attempts and physical violence to get laughs. It has similarities to other comedies of the period, and, yes, even a large-scale chase sequence as well.

The opening title tells us this will show “the trials and tribulations of a private detective.” The first shot shows a stage dressed to be a classic private eye’s office, right down to the door with “Hawkshaw Private Detective” printed on the glass. The detective reclines in a chair with a newspaper. A man comes into the office and paces about, agitated. He gives the detective an envelope, which the detective opens and reads, then the two sit at the desk while the detective gets the particulars. The man gives him money, then leaves.

The next scene takes place in front of a house. The detective “sneaks” quite openly into a hiding position behind a pole, then watches as a lady and a gentleman emerge from the house and get into a car. The detective jumps out to photograph the two of them driving off, but as he does so, a gardener comes up from behind him with a wheelbarrow and knocks him down, wheeling him off. Next we see the detective on a country road. He jumps out as the car approaches, attempting to take his picture, but the driver runs him over. He gets up and hobbles off. The next scene shows the man and the woman at an outdoor café at a club, being waited on by an African American waiter. The detective tries to take their picture again, but this time the man punches him and drives him off. The detective meets the waiter outside and pays him for his jacket, then smears dirt on his face to create blackface and puts on a shaggy wig. He serves the couple, but as he prepares to take the picture, the man grabs a seltzer bottle and sprays him in the face.

In the next scene, the couple is golfing, and the man hides in a sand trap. When he leaps up to take the picture, the woman drives the ball right at him, hitting him and knocking him down. The couple goes to see who’s been hurt, but when they find it is him, the man smashes his camera. Next we see the detective in a sailor suit, getting onto a gondola ahead of the couple. They board and he prepares to take his picture, but the man punches him and knocks him into the water. Then the couple are seen sitting on a hammock together in a park. The detective sets up a tripod to take their picture from behind, but when the flash goes off they are alerted and the man again smashes the camera. Finally, the couple stroll along  the beach, followed by the detective in a white uniform. This time he is able to take their picture unobserved, they are so distracted by one another, but another bather rises the alarm and soon the whole beach is after him! He manages to stash the photograph by hiding out under a levee, but the crowd does find him, beat him, and smash his camera again.

Now we see the client and his wife together at home. He is obviously agitated and the wife denies doing anything wrong. The detective is shown in, with bandages and bruises from all of his fights, and triumphantly shows the man the photograph he took. It’s the wrong woman! The woman and the man in the photo are shown in (apparently it is the mother-in-law), and then the poor man is forcibly shown the door.

This movie has a lot in common with “Mr. Flip,” that came out a few years later. The comedy hinges on a man being a persistent pest, and not taking the hint when he is upbraided for his behavior. The seltzer spritz and wheelbarrow scene are also similar to some of the punishments Ben Turpin suffers in that film. Unlike Turpin, however, this comedian doesn’t really add much to his pratfalls, he just takes the abuse when it comes. He isn’t funny in himself, it’s just that some of the things that happen to him are funny. The car running over him is pretty convincing, although I think it was done with jump cuts and a dummy. I particularly laughed when the entire beach started chasing him after it looked like he would (finally!) get off all right. I mostly felt sorry for him, though. Given that the couple weren’t doing anything wrong, it seems that the violence they mete out in defense of their privacy is a bit extreme.

Director: Edwin S. Porter and Wallace McCutcheon

Camera: Unknown, possibly Edwin S. Porter and Wallace McCutcheon

Starring: Paul Panzer

Run Time: 14 Min

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

May 1917

The Century News roundup this week has some interesting trends, in addition to the expected war news and the militarization of the now officially belligerent USA. The Russian Revolution continues, but the big headlines for this month are about uprisings in France and Italy – reasons why people on both sides feared (or anticipated) a coming World Revolution. The Catholic Church has some major events, both at the top and the bottom of its hierarchical structure. And in a film world that is increasingly defined by major stars with huge salaries and unprecedented control of their work, we see important releases from Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, and Roscoe Arbuckle.

Phillippe Pétain

World War One

The Nivelle Offensive, an attack on the Aisne Front that resulted in over 180,000 French casualties, is abandoned on May 9.

Robert Nivelle is replaced on May 15 as Commander-in-Chief of the French Army by Philippe Pétain. Seen as a hero at this stage of his career, he will later lead the collaborationist regime of Vichy France.

The Selective Service Act passes the United States Congress on May 18, giving the President the power of conscription.

During the Stalemate in Southern Palestine the Raid on the Beersheba to Hafir el Auja railway by Desert Column of British Empire troops, destroys large sections of the railway line linking Beersheba to the main Ottoman desert base on May 23.

Over 30,000 French troops refuse to go to the trenches at Missy-aux-Bois on May27. This is one of several mutinies by French soldiers during the year 1917, as conditions at the Front become increasingly inhuman and the sense that generals sacrifice lives without concern spreads among the common people.

Pope Pius XII

Catholicism

The nuncio Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pope Pius XII, is consecrated Archbishop by Pope Benedict XV on May 13.

Beginning May 13, 10-year-old Lúcia Santos and her cousins Francisco and Jacinta Marto report experiencing a series of Marian apparitions near Fátima, Portugal, which become known as Our Lady of Fátima. These visions continue until October.

Pope Benedict XV promulgates the 1917 Code of Canon Law on May 27.

Disasters

Over 300 acres (73 blocks) are destroyed in the Great Atlanta fire of 1917 on May 21 in the United States.

A tornado strikes Mattoon, Illinois on May 26, causing devastation and killing 101 people.

Transportation

A new Coast and Geodetic Survey Corps of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey is created on May 22, giving the Survey’s officers a commissioned status that protected them from treatment as spies if captured, as well as providing the United States armed forces with a ready source of officers skilled in surveying that could be rapidly assimilated for wartime support of the armed forces.

Crime

Eli Persons is lynched in Memphis on May 22 in connection with the rape and murder of 16-year-old Antoinette Rappal. Parsons was arrested on the evidence of authorities who claimed they could see his face frozen in the pupils of the victim. His death was a partial motivator for the foundation of the Memphis Chapter of the NAACP.

Civil Unrest

A month of civil violence in Milan, Italy, ends on May 23 after the Italian army forcibly takes over the city from anarchists and anti-war revolutionaries. Fifty people are killed and 800 arrested.

Film

Release of A Romance of the Redwoods, directed by Cecil B. DeMille, starring Mary Pickford on May 14.

Release of One Law for Both directed by Ivan Abramson on May 19.

Release of  Souls Triumphant, starring Lillian Gish on May 20

May 21 – A Reckless Romeo, a ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle short on May 21.

Release of Frank Hansen’s Fortune directed by Viggo Larsen – (Germany). Exact date unknown.

Births

May 1 – Danielle Darrieux, actress (in “5 Fingers” and “The Earrings of Madame de…”).

May 10 – Margo, actress (in “The Leopard Man” and “Lost Horizon”).

May 16 – George Gaynes, actor (in “Police Academy” and “Tootsie”).

May 21 – Raymond Burr, actor (known for “Perry Mason” TV series and also in the American release of “Godzilla”).

May 25 – Steve Cochran, actor (who was in “The Best Years of Our Lives” and “Copacabana“).

The Tragic Mill (1917)

Alternate Title: Le moulin tragique

At about the halfway point into the serial Judex, this episode once again rescues Jaqueline from the clutches of the bad guys and also reveals not one but two secret identities. With all of that, and also somewhat better film techniques, it almost makes up for the lack of screen time given to its two best actors.

As the episode begins, an ambulance arrives to take Jacqueline (Yvette Andréyor) to the hospital to recover from her unfortunate dip in the river in the last outing. She is wished farewell by her tearful son, Le Petit Jean (Olinda Mano) and his buddy Bout-de-Zan (René Poyen). Shortly after she is driven off, Vallieres, former secretary to the banker Favraux, walks up and inquires after her. While he is there, a second ambulance pulls up, revealing that she has been captured by the devils who tried to do away with her!

Meanwhile, the elderly Kerjean (Gaston Michel) is walking around his old mill, reminiscing about his life before it was destroyed by Favraux’s scheming. While he is there, an ambulance pulls up and Diana Monti (Musidora) and Morales (Jean Devalde) get out, bringing Jacqueline into the mill. Monti wants to drown her beneath the mill, but Morales, who has been acting increasingly reticent suddenly revolts at the idea of murder and there is a fight between them. Kerjean intercedes and warns them to leave, but suddenly Morales reveals that he is Kerjean’s son! They lock Monti in the room with the opening to the water and Kerjean goes to phone Judex. Of course, Monti strips down to a one-piece bathing suit and swims away.

Judex (René Cresté) hops into the Judexboat and zips upriver to find the mill. He takes Jacqueline to the home of Vallieres to recuperate, which she does quickly. Apparently she just needed to get out of that peasant hut and into a nice big bed with feather pillows, was all. Anyway, once she recovers, she speaks to Vallieres and finds out how she got there, and he gives her a note from Judex, also telling her that Judex is in love with her. She immediately dictates a rather nasty note telling him that Vallieres will be forbidden to mention the name of “Judex” around her. Vallieres takes the note into the next room and removes his beard and white hair, revealing that he is, in fact, Judex! The episode ends on this plot twist.

As this quick summary shows, not a whole lot actually happens in this episode, but some pretty major developments in the plot took place. I saw both reveals coming before they happened, but I had wondered when they would occur. I’d been watching out for Kerjean’s son to appear since episode one, when we learn that he has fallen in with a bad crowd, but until the good guy/bad guy lines were clearly drawn it was hard to know where he’d show up. Vallieres has been largely dropped since the beginning, but in this episode I couldn’t help noticing that his build and nose were very much like Judex’s. The thing that disappointed me was the lack of a role for Bout-de-Zan, who just looks on while Le Petit Jean cries, and Marcel Lévesque, who has once again disappeared from sight. This episode seems to serve the purpose of resolving the immediate crisis, while building towards bigger developments in the future.

Technically, however, the film is back on track. The editing, particularly within in the mill, is quite sophisticated for Louis Feuillade, including cross-cutting between rooms and a close up as we see Morales realize who the stranger is. In general, the movie is much more comfortable with cutting within scenes than had been the case with “Fantômas.” There are some good lighting choices while Kerjean walks among his memories. The footage of the boat motoring along the river is also quite effective, sometimes handled with pans, and sometimes by placing the camera at the fore of the boat pointing aft. I can see that this movie, even though it had been shot a few years earlier, worked well for audiences of 1917.

Director: Louis Feuillade

Camera: André Glatti, Léon Klausse

Starring: Yvette Andréyor, René Cresté, Jean Devalde, Édouard Mathé, Gaston Michel, Musidora, René Poyen, Olinda Mano

Run Time: 26 Min

You can watch it  for free: here.

 

Kathleen Mavourneen (1906)

A short melodrama from Edwin S. Porter that draws from Nineteenth Century theater as well as traditional song, and comes off as creaky as any movie of the Nickelodeon Era. While we see some evidence of the editing techniques that made Porter famous, acting and plot don’t show much advancement in this one.

Kathleen is a lovely Irish lass, introduced in a pastoral setting before a waterfall. She is approached by Captain Clearfield, her landlord, who has designs on her affections. Kathleen spurns his advances, but when he persists, the heroic Terence O’More comes onto the scene and fights him off. Clearfield is now shown conspiring with a band of thugs who hold up a carriage on the highway. He meets with them in a very fake-looking cave set, and divvies up the spoils of their heist. Now Clearfield shows up at Kathleen’s father’s home, accompanied by four men in uniform (I think they’re supposed to be bailiffs, but they look like bellboys to me). When his advances on Kathleen are again spurned, he orders the men to turn Kathleen and her father out of their home. When O’More overhears what is happening, he runs off to get the neighbors to band together and drive off the bailiffs. This precipitates a lengthy chase sequence, which ends with all of the bailiffs chased into the river.

There are two “lost scenes” that follow this sequence, which are today replaced with Intertitles. In the first, the gang kidnaps Kathleen with chloroform, rendering her unconscious and dragging her back to the cave. In the second, one of Clearfield’s henchman knocks out her father and sets the house on fire. O’More arrives in time to rescue him and then goes in pursuit of Kathleen. Wearing a hood, he pretends to be a bootlegger, and convinces some of the men to take him back to their hideout to drink whiskey. Once there, he tears off his disguise and engages in fisticuffs with the entire gang, besting them and freeing Kathleen. The final sequence is a wedding dance for Kathleen and O’More.

This movie is based on a play by Dion Boucicault, which was apparently unreleased in America at the time. The play had been based on the song “Kathleen Mavourneen,” which was popular among Irish Americans during the Civil War. “Mavourneen” is derived from the Gaelic mo mhuirnín, meaning “my beloved.” The lyrics to this song are simply maudlin longing for a lost love, with no mention of all the complications of an evil landlord and robbers, so Americans unfamiliar with the play might have been baffled by the plot of this movie, which lacks Intertitles or other explanatory techniques to reveal the plot and characters. No doubt some exhibitors provided narration to make sense of it. Historian Charles Musser in “Before the Nickelodeon,” suggests that Porter may have “misjudged their audience’s familiarity” with the material or else “failed to achieve the level of self-sufficient clarity” that was needed. In any event, the movie, which was comparably complex to shoot, was not a big success with exhibitors, who bought fewer than half as many copies as was the case for “The Terrible Kids.”

Looking at it today, it’s hard not to see Clearwater as a classic example of the mustache-twirling “you must pay the rent” model of an evil landlord from the silent era. At least he never ties Kathleen to any railroad tracks! I think he would have seemed old-fashioned even to the moviegoers of the time, in fact. His behavior derives from stage conventions of the Victorian age, which movies would often lampoon in coming years. Given that he has the forces of the law on his side, it seems somewhat unrealistic that simply besting him in single combat is enough to remove his threat, but that is also a convention of simplistic melodrama. The more “modern” pieces of the film include the chase sequence, which we’ve been seeing a lot of lately, and the closing dance, which makes me think of “Watermelon Patch” and “The Miller’s Daughter.”

Director: Edwin S. Porter and Wallace McCutcheon

Camera: Unknown, possibly Edwin S. Porter and Wallace McCutcheon

Starring:Kitty O’Neil, Walter Griswoll

Run Time: 15 Min

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