Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

A Fishy Affair (1913)

Ford Sterling was the big star on the Keystone lot when this short was produced in April, 1913, and it exploits his famous expressive facial stylings to the fullest, while living up to the usual standard of low-production-values and quick action that is associated with the brand.

The movie takes place on locations that look suspiciously similar to those used in “A Muddy Romance.” Ford sits on the stoop of his house, fiddling with a fishing rod. His wife (Laura Oakley) is inside the house, stashing her savings inside of a stocking. A burglar (Bert Hunn) skulks outside of her window, watching where the loot is hidden. Ford comes in to ask his wife to borrow some money, and while her back is turned, the burglar sneaks in and takes the stocking. Unfortunately for him, a cop (Rube Miller) sees him come out of the window and pursues. Unfortunately for Ford, his wife has no intention of letting him have any of her hard-earned cash. He decides to go fishing.

The robber realizes that he may be hauled in, and tosses the stocking into a pond or puddle, no doubt hoping to collect it when the heat is off. Ford, of course, winds up at that very place with his rod and reel. After some interesting scenes of him catching “little” fishes intercut with underwater images of fish swimming around and occasionally biting the hook, he pulls out the stocking. He’s annoyed to be catching trash, doesn’t notice the money, and tosses it in his catch box. Finally, he catches a “big one,” but it turns out to be a baby alligator, and he runs away from it, into a nest of alligators, knocking down the cop along the way. The cop also winds up at the alligator nest, briefly. When Ford gets home, the whole house is in an uproar, looking for the stolen money. Of course, it doesn’t look good when they find the stocking in Ford’s box. But, just then, the cop rushes in with the burglar, caught, and everything is brought to an amicable conclusion.

I wonder how many takes before this fish hit its mark?

Whenever I watch Ford Sterling, I think about what Charlie Chaplin said about him in his autobiography. He made fun of Sterling for “keeping the crew in stitches” throughout production by talking in his funny German accent during shooting. It seemed like a waste to Charlie, because the audience would never hear it. It always seems to me that keeping laughter going on a comedy set is a pretty good idea, it helps set the tone and keep morale up. Also, I can see Sterling’s lips moving the whole time, and although I can’t hear the accent, I can see from his gestures and actions that he’s keeping up a silly line of discourse, establishing what a clown his character is. Sterling wasn’t in Chaplin’s league, really, but he was good for a few laughs. He has a distinct style and it’s easy to see why he was popular. This movie never really pays off with the kind of chaotic craziness we’d hope for in a Keystone, but it’s a half-reeler that was produced for very little, and it plays well enough, considering.

Director: Mack Sennett

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Ford Sterling, Laura Oakley, Bert Hunn, Rube Miller, William Hauber, Nick Cogley, Dot Farley

Run Time: 6 Min, 11 secs

I have not been able to find this movie available for free on the Internet. If you do, please comment.

His Trysting Places (1914)

This short movie comes late in Charlie Chaplin’s tenure at Keystone Studios and seems to represent a late attempt by Chaplin to accommodate himself to the limitations imposed on him there. Far from being his best work, it does represent an effort to add a bit of situational humor to the madcap slapstick the studio was known for.

The movie begins with Charlie and Mabel Normand in a small kitchen set, Mabel with a baby in her arms and Charlie sitting close behind her reading a paper. He is constantly placing his arms, feet, etc. on the hot stove, burning himself and disturbing the boiling kettle, and she is having difficulty juggling the baby and her cooking projects. Finally, she gives Charlie the baby, but he seems to have no idea how to hold it safely. He goes into the next room and sets up the baby’s crib, only to place the child on the floor and lean back in the crib himself. Meanwhile, we see a woman (Helen Carruthers) in the lobby of what seems to be a hotel, writing. An intertitle shows her note – an invitation to her lover to meet her in the park at “our little trysting place.” No name for the recipient is given, which is what leads to all of the problems later. Ambrose (Mack Swain) is going out for a walk and agrees to post the note for her, placing it in his long black coat. Mabel has finally lost her patience with Charlie as well, and sends him out with a long black coat. He promises to return with a gift for the child. He stops at a store and buys a baby bottle, much to the amusement of an African American boy sitting outside the shop, who apparently imagines Charlie plans to drink from it.

I have a feeling Charlie got this a lot when he went out in costume.

Both Ambrose and Charlie end up at the same diner, hanging their coats on the same coat rack. Charlie causes chaos with an old man sitting at the counter and soon with Ambrose as well,  who he sits next to at the lunch counter. What begins as a minor dispute over table manners escalates into full scale war. Charlie kicks pretty much everyone in the place, and Ambrose grabs a coat and runs out. Charlie takes his coat as well and gets into a fight with a passerby outside of the diner. Ambrose has found his wife (Phyllis Allen) on a park bench and she comforts him. Charlie returns to Mabel, who is struggling now to juggle the child and her ironing, with much the same results as before. She looks in Charlie’s coat to see what present he has brought the child and finds the note. She concludes that he has been cheating on her. She goes wild and breaks the ironing board over her head. Charlie, thinking she’s gone nuts, grabs the coat and runs out again.

Now Ambrose leaves his coat with his wife for a while and Charlie finds her there and tells her his woes. Mabel is on the hunt, and leaves the baby with a policeman while she goes over to confront Charlie and Phyllis, striking him and strangling her. She kicks Charlie into a garbage pail. Phyllis, now relieved of the assault, finds the bottle in Ambrose’s pocket, and concludes that he has had a baby with another woman (!). Ambrose sees Charlie being beaten by Mabel and comes to offer her his assistance. Once he realizes who Charlie is he becomes afraid, and he winds up getting knocked into the garbage pail. Now the policeman walks up and gives Mabel back the baby, and everyone tries to act natural while he’s there. Ambrose winds up with the baby and when Phyllis sees this, she faints. Mabel shows Charlie the note and Ambrose sees the bottle and he brings the baby and bottle back to Mabel, who now forgives Charlie. Charlie gives the note to Phyllis, who now is doubly angry to find that he is meeting a woman at a trysting place. Mabel and Charlie laugh as she beats him up.

A classic “comedy of errors,” this was cheap to make and less clichéd than the average “park comedy” which Charlie was making for Keystone. I think it’s the only time a baby was brought in, and the child actually manages to be funny even though he probably had no idea what was going on. Given all his clumsy foolishness, there is a sense in the opening that Charlie will burn the child on the stove, which adds to the comedic tension that is released every time he does something else. Of course, Chaplin is in perfect control all the time, and didn’t put the child at risk even though it seems at any moment that he might. Each piece of this movie could be from an earlier Keystone – it begins much like “Mabel’s Married Life,” moves through “His Favorite Pastime” and ends on “The Rounders.” But, Chaplin is building upon the material in each episode, looking for new gags and new situations to improve on what he’s done before. The end result is quite satisfying. There is good use of editing and multiple camera angles, with especial emphasis on two-shots, as when Chaplin and Swain are sitting at the lunch counter, or when Chaplin and Mabel are on the bench in the park. The one piece that doesn’t work for me, surprisingly, is Mabel Normand’s performance, which seems unusually hammy and over-acted to me. It’s surprising because I usually enjoy her work. They’d had problems working together in the past, and maybe this came out on the set in some way, and Chaplin just had to live with the results.

One odd discrepancy about this movie is the title. Every print I’ve seen says “His Trysting Places,” but Wikipedia, imdb, and The Silent Era (which is usually authoritative) all call it “His Trysting Place.” I’ve gone with what I’ve seen in the credits, but I’m not sure why this uncertainty exists.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Mabel Normand, Mack Swain, Phyllis Allen, Helen Carruthers, Glen Cavender, Nick Cogley, Ted Edwards, Vivian Edwards, Edwin Frazee, Billy Gilbert, Frank Hayes.

Run Time: 20 Min, 44 secs

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

His Musical Career (1914)

Fans of classic comedy will find something familiar in this early short from Keystone Studios starring Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin plays a worker in a piano shop who must make a difficult delivery, but gets the addresses confused…

The movie begins with Chaplin, in his “Little Tramp” getup, applying for a job from store manager Mack Swain. Swain seems a bit concerned at Chaplin’s slight build, but puts him to the test by having him hoist a growler of beer over his head. Charlie succeeds, but spits out the beer when Mack smacks him on the back. Then Charlie lines up the can of beer next to an identical can of varnish while Swain’s back is turned, and of course Mack takes a sip from the wrong one. Charlie helps relieve his distress by splashing the rest of the beer on him. Meanwhile, salesman Charley Chase is selling a piano in the front room to “Mr. Rich” (Fritz Schade) and informs “Mr. Poor” (Frank Hayes) who has fallen behind on his payments, that his piano will be repossessed. Hayes really hams things up as the music-loving Mr. Poor. Charlie tries to nap on a piano keyboard while Mack is out speaking with Chase. It turns out that the two customers have very similar addresses.

Mack and Charlie now go to work on trying to deliver the piano. Although it is on wheels, they try to attach a length of rope. Charlie hoists the piano briefly while Mack gets under it to tie the rope on, but then he just lowers it on top of Mack and takes his time in removing it. Eventually, they push it over to a rickety old cart attached to a mule, then hoist it aboard. Charlie gets into the driver’s seat and Mack climbs on next to him, cradling another beer growler. Swain naps during the drive and Charlie spoons out some beer with his pipe. When they stop for a moment so that Mack can check the piano, the weight of the piano lifts the mule’s feet off the ground. He has to put his weight back onto the front of the cart before the mule can proceed. They pull up to the address of Mr. Poor, thinking it is Mr. Rich. Of course, there is a long staircase they have to climb with the piano, Mack pulling in front, Charlie lifting and pushing from behind. Of course, the piano tumbles down on top of Charlie before they can reach the top. Finally, they bring it into the house, to the delight of Mr. Poor and his daughter, and Charlie has it strapped to his back, moving from one part of the small room to another while they make up their minds where it should go.  Once it has been placed, Charlie cannot straighten his back. Mack yanks him several times, but then fixes the problem by laying Charlie on the floor and pushing on his backside with his foot.

Now they head over to the other address, a beautiful California house, and spend a good deal of time rearranging the furniture in order to get the piano they find there out. Mrs. Rich (Cecile Arnold) comes out to find what they are doing. Charlie and Mack both vie for her attention, and she seems quite put out by them. She summons a liveried servant, whom Mack pushes to the ground before they remove the piano. Charlie does several pratfalls before Mr. Rich walks up, indignant, and accuses them of stealing it. He gives Mack a boot in the pants, which sends him, the piano, and Charlie rolling down the long hill in front of his house. All three land in the lake used in the finales of so many other Keystone shorts.

Laurel and Hardy fans are most likely familiar with a 1932 movie called “The Music Box,” in which Stan & Ollie have to deliver a piano to a house at the top of a long stairwell. In fact, variations on this theme have been made a number of times in cinema, but so far as I know this is the first. In comparison, Laurel and Hardy milked that situation for a lot more laughs than Charlie did, but in fairness they had many more years of experience with film comedy at that time, as well as the benefit of all the developments of film technique and technology that happened in between. It does seem that this movie demonstrates a bit more of Charlie realizing his own potential, and that of his character, here towards the end of his contract with Keystone. We also see evidence of his growing popularity. Quite a number of pedestrians are visible in a crowd, staring at Swain and Chaplin as they hoist the piano onto the cart, and even men from a passing streetcar turn to stare. Evidently it was getting harder to shoot a Chaplin film without drawing a crowd. Swain and Chaplin seem to have really found their groove working together as well, with the contrast between the big man and the little one emphasized to comedic effect. Chaplin makes good use of simple editing techniques to tell the story, such as cross-cutting from the salesroom to the shop, and editing together the precipitous fall down the hill at the end. There’s an interesting shot during the drive as well, where the camera has been placed on top of the mule’s back to give a two-shot of the stars, while we watch the street go by on the sides. This wouldn’t have been easy to set up at a time when the camera had to be hand-cranked, but cinematographer Frank D. Williams must have made it work somehow, possibly by dragging the cart behind a truck so that he had a platform to stand on.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Mack Swain, Fritz Schade, Charley Chase, Cecile Arnold, Frank Hayes, Helen Carruthers, Billy Gilbert

Run Time: 13 Min

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

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)

October’s over, but wait! We still have one more centennial to add to our history of horror. This is my contribution to the “Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon,” hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Please check back there in the coming week for more of the entries.

This version of the classic Robert Louis Stevenson tale stars John Barrymore, whose reputation as an actor was already well-established, both on the stage and screen at this point, though some of his greatest triumphs in cinema were yet to come. This movie begins by introducing Dr. Henry Jekyll hard at work over his microscope, boasting to a skeptical colleague (Charles Lane as Dr. Lanyon) that science can conquer any mystery. The insert shots of micro-organisms may have been the first that many 1920s audiences had seen. Dr. Lanyon accuses him of meddling with the supernatural, and his butler Poole (George Stevens) comes in to remind him of his shift at the clinic and a later dinner date. We see the “human repair shop” which the charitable Jekyll runs to treat the poor of London. Interestingly, his home and the clinic appear to be on the same crowded London street, suggesting that a sumptuous home could be shouldered up against poverty in that time and place (the movie appears to be set, as the story is, in the late 19th Century).

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Gentlemen of Nerve (1914)

This short from Keystone seems to be yet another remake of Charlie Chaplin’s first appearance as the Little Tramp, but also demonstrates how far he had come as a director in a few months. He and the Keystone gang are once again at a racetrack, causing a ruckus.

The movie begins with Chester Conklin and Mabel Normand showing up together at the gate, while Mack Swain and Charlie both try to sneak past the guards to get in. Chester seems very jealous to protect Mabel from harassment by Mack, but has a decidedly roving eye once he sits down next to Phyllis Allen. Early in the picture, we get some actuality footage of drivers competitively changing tires as a part of the races. Meanwhile, after a brief confrontation, Charlie and Mack have teamed up t find a way into the races without paying. They find a loose board in the fence and try to slip through, but Mack is of course much too large and quickly gets stuck. Charlie tires pushing him through from behind, then crawls in through his legs and tries pulling from the other side. A group of revelers is on this side, watching their struggles with amusement. Charlie helps one of them fix a drink, then uses the spritzer to prevent a cop (Edgar Kennedy) from arresting Mack, who finally breaks through. He also sprays Mack in the process. They go their separate ways, and soon Charlie runs into Chester and Mabel.

Just don’t fart, Mack!

Mabel has gotten Chester away from Phyllis, but now she shows an interest in Charlie. They fight in front of a big crowd, most of whom seem to be more interested in Charlie than the races. Chester and Mabel go back to their seats near Phyllis, and get into a fight as well. Charlie finds a seat near Alice Davenport, who seems interested in him until he steals her soda, then starts offering it to other women. Soon Mabel trips over Charlie’s feet, and he seems uncertain which woman to focus on, especially after Mabel ruins his hat. Mabel and Charlie go to look at a race car with a propeller, and soon Charlie is running around the track to avoid getting hit. Chester now insults Phyllis by whispering something in her ear, and she hits him and he runs away, now discovering Mabel and Charlie together. He threatens violence against Mabel, and Charlie takes a long time removing his coat before hitting him. The cop finds Mack and arrests him just as Chester blunders into him from Charlie’s blow and both are taken in while Mabel and Charlie laugh in a close two-shot.

While this movie takes some advantage of the crowds and location of the race track, a lot of it is shot under much more controlled circumstances than “Kid Auto Races at Venice” and it more closely resembles “Mabel’s Busy Day,” except that Mabel and Charlie end up together, rather than as rivals. It’s very easy to see from the scenes with Chaplin in them that he was now a recognizable figure in public, and that the public was eager to watch him. I always remember when I watch these early Chaplins that many critics called him “vulgar” and I certainly thought about this during the scenes in which Charlie tries to push Mack through the fence, often by shoving on his buttocks or pushing them with a stick. There’s even some talk that the women in these movies could have been portraying sex workers, given their ready willingness to flit from one stranger to another, although Phyllis obviously wasn’t willing to go as far as Chester wanted on a first meeting. It seems as if Charlie had figured out by now that his Little Tramp character was the sympathetic one for audiences – he almost always comes out ahead in every situation here, while Mack and Chester are foils for his gags.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Mabel Normand, Chester Conklin, Mack Swain, Alice Davenport, Edgar Kennedy

Run Time: 15 Min

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

Crissie Sheridan Serpentine Dance (1897)

There are so manySerpentine Dances” from the early days of cinema, it can be hard to tell which one you’re looking at. This one, identified by the Library of Congress, is distinctive enough that I can be sure I haven’t reviewed it before.

As described by the LoC: “A woman in a white gown performs a skirt dance, using her arms to produce circles and other patterns within the folds of her costume. Her legs and feet appear to be bare.” It comes out of the Edison Company in 1897, by which time they’d been producing movies like these for at least three years. It appears likely that this would have been produced for  the Kinetoscope – intended to be watched individually through a machine with a crank in a parlor or arcade-type setting. The fact that it can be played as an endless loop, starting from any point would be advantageous, because the proprietor didn’t have to worry if a given customer stopped it before its “ending” and the next person picked it up. The dancer is larger than Annabelle Moore, the star of many of these pictures, and we don’t see much of her body besides her face, despite the teases of bare skin that show through. The “sexy” nature of the dance would also have been a big selling point.

Director: Unknown, possibly William KL Dickson

Camera: William Heise

Starring: Crissie Sheridan

Run Time: 42 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

The Penalty (1920)

Lon Chaney established himself as the master of makeup and evil characters with this crime-horror feature after years in cinema, developing his range and honing his abilities. His character’s complexities lead to a surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of a man driven by revenge and evil.

The movie begins with a classic supervillain-origin-story: a child who has been in an accident is under the care of a young, freshly-minted doctor (Charles Clary), who amputates both his legs beneath the knees. When the doctor’s mentor arrives on the scene, he pronounces the amputations unnecessary, and the child learns of his disfigurement by overhearing them, then witnesses both doctors lying to his parents to cover up the mistake. Thus are the seeds of insanity sown. The boy grows up to become known as “Blizzard,” the chief of the criminal underworld in San Francisco. We first see him in his new role after a goon named Frisco Pete (Jim Mason) kills a streetwalker called Barbary Nell (Doris Pawn) in a dance hall. Pete runs back to Blizzard’s hideout and beat cops wisely choose to look the other way when they realize who is behind it. We learn that Nell has “wandered” from Blizzard’s gang, perhaps because for some strange reason he has put all of his girls to work in a sweatshop making hats. Read the rest of this entry »

The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1920)

At long last, here is my discussion of the feature that often begins the list of any “history of horror” films. It’s probably one of the most analyzed and written-about films of the Expressionist period, perhaps of German silent film in general, so I’ll be trying to see if I can add something new or at least interesting to consider.

The movie begins with a shot of two men sitting on a bench in front of a high stone wall. A tree with no leaves nearby establishes the time of year, and that they are in a park or similar outdoor space. The camera quickly cuts to a close-up on the older of the two men, and he speaks about spirits being “all around us” (“überall sind sie um uns her”), which seems to establish the supernatural or otherworldly nature of the tale, and he claims that they have separated him from his family. An ethereal-looking woman in white approaches the pair from the distance, and the younger man watches her in fascination. He identifies her as his fiancée, although she gives no sign of recognizing him, and tells the first man that their experiences are even stranger (“still seltsamer”) than what he has lived through. He offers to tell his tale, and then with a gesture evokes “The little town where I was born,” and from this point the movie takes place within his narrative (although see below about this).

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The Golem (1920)

This German feature film directed by Paul Wegener enters our History of Horror among the first movies modern fans easily recognize as “really” a horror movie. But its place in history remains disputed, with many possible interpretations available, so let’s take a closer look.

The movie begins with a shot of a starry sky above gnarled rooftops, with seven stars in a strange over-lapping configuration. We cut to an old man atop one of those rooftops, peering through a telescope and learn in an intetitle that he is Rabbi Loew (Albert Steinrück), and that he sees bad days ahead for the Jews of Prague in the stars. Close-ups then introduce us to his household – an assistant named Famulus (Ernst Deutsch) and a daughter named Miriam (Lyda Salmonova, in reality the wife of Wegener). These two are both young adults, and they gently flirt as they assist on some alchemical experiment or other. Rabbi Loew interrupts to tell them of his prophecy, then he puts on a tall peaked hat and goes out to inform the other elders of the Ghetto. He advises them to begin a 24-hour vigil of prayer to avert coming disaster. Since he’s a  respected rabbi, the community elders follow is advice.

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Haunted Spooks (1920)

This horror spoof kicks off my annual “history of horror” for the month of October. It is a very funny – but also deeply problematic – comedy short featuring Harold Lloyd in his now-established “glass” character.

The movie begins with a series of funny intertitles that establish the cast and situation. Mildred Davis plays “The Girl,” who we are told is “Sweet Sixteen and never – – – well, only once or twice.” It is established that she is due to inherit a plantation and its associated fortune from her grandfather, so long as she is married and willing to live on the grounds with her husband for one year. The titles also tell us about Lloyd’s character (“The Boy: He wants to get married – – – Has no other faults,”) although we won’t meet him for a little while yet. Before that, we watch as her uncle (Wallace Howe, who plays “A man of sorts – – we are not saying what sort) reads the will and realizes that if he can drive her out of the house, he and his wife will be sole inheritors of the old Colonel’s property. Then we watch  clear parody of one of D.W. Griffith’s classic “bird-smooching heroine” introductions, in which Mildred is simply covered in cute critters, and even feeding a piglet from a milk bottle as well. Now William Gillespie, playing the family lawyer, arrives into her idyll and informs her of her new wealth, discovering to his embarrassment that she isn’t married. He promises to find her a cure for that and dashes off in his car.

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