Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

The Reawakening (1919)

This live-action documentary short from the Ford Motor Company is quite different from the animated political cartoons we’ve seen from them in the past, but it still has a basically political message. In this case, it’s a positive one about re-integrating wounded veterans in the workforce and American society.

The movie consists of a series of documentary images tied together with intertitles. It begins with footage of an ambulance crew on the battlefield, loading a stretcher into their (no doubt Ford-built) vehicle. This is followed by several cards worth of “purple prose” about the heroics of the men and medics of wartime, and then we see soldiers with canes being disembarked from a train and climbing into another ambulance to be shuttled to a hospital. At the hospital, the footage emphasizes occupational therapy, a relatively new idea in which recuperating men are encouraged to perform tasks to restore their muscle strength and coordination, as well as in some cases re-training skills they might be able to put to use in paid work after discharge. We see them receiving physical therapy from nurses and doing gymnastics. We also see the production of artificial limbs. A soldier with a missing leg comes in to receive his and gives a little jump for joy on the way out the door. Read the rest of this entry »

Advertisements

The Ball Player and the Bandit (1912)

This typical Western short from director Francis Ford has an interesting twist and nice performances by the leads. It reminded me a lot of “The Making of Broncho Billy” until the end, where things take a different turn.

The movie begins by introducing Harry Burns (played by Harold Lockwood), who is a star pitcher on a college team. We see him playing pitching a ball in an over-the-shoulder shot, and then the reaction of the crowd as he wins the game. His college life ends, however, when a letter from his uncle arrives informing him that “financial reverses” make it impossible to continue funding his education. He has set him up in a job “in the west,” however, so he’s not destitute. His teammates, along with an old professor and a man in a clerical collar (I suppose the college deacon) all shake his hand and then go to celebrate the victory, leaving Harry to bemoan the loss of his promising baseball career.

He soon recovers, however, and shows up in the typical western town of the era, taking on a job as paymaster (I suppose for the railroad, although it’s not specified). His boss is a gruff-looking cowboy and he has a cute cowgirl daughter (Helen Case). She seem somewhat taken by the handsome new arrival and starts to show him the ropes of his job, but suddenly loses interest when he refuses to carry a gun. She now goes out to a group of toughs and tells them to teach him a lesson, and when Harry comes out they menace him with their guns, even making him “dance” a-la “The Great Train Robbery.” Despite being unarmed, he stands up for himself and proceeds to beat up the lead bully with his fists – the other man tries to fight, but he does have too much honor to reach for his gun and Harry beats him fair and square. Helen takes note of this and gives the bully a bit of ribbing after the fight.

DANCE!

The next day, Harry receives a package in the mail from his old college chums – it is the ball that he pitched in his last game, a memento of his old life. He and Helen are getting closer now, to the consternation of the bully character and the concern of her father. When she sees him setting off to collect the payroll money, she decides to play another “little joke” and takes the office gun that Harry refuses to carry, sneaking out with a smile on her face. However, even as she plans to teach Harry a lesson by pretending to be a bandit, a real bandit by the name of “Red Dan” is introduced. He sees the unarmed man at the post office, picking up the money and his package and decides to follow him.

Helen, now disguised with a heavy coat and a bandana, accosts Harry on the road and threatens him with the gun, but Harry’s not afraid of this rather short bandit and he grabs her gun hand and removes the mask, finding who it really is. Just at that moment, Red Dan rushes in and holds them up. He takes Helen’s gun and searches Harry, finding only the baseball, which he throws to the ground. Then he takes the money and walks away. Thinking fast, Harry grabs the baseball and pitches it into the bandit’s head! He goes down and Harry runs over and quickly overcomes him and binds him while Helen holds his gun. Once again, Harry has proved that his physical talents can overcome a gunman.

I’m sure he’ll get a fair trial.

Now Helen and Harry bring the bandit, and the money, back into town. The gang of toughs leads the bandit away (a prominent length of rope made me think of a lynching, but nothing is shown). Helen’s father congratulates Harry. The final scene shows Helen and Harry sitting on a bench, obviously falling in love. The Pony Express man rides up with a telegram, informing Harry that he has been selected to play on the Chicago White Sox, and can move back east. At this, Helen begins to cry and Harry writes out his reply: he is “engaged for life” and will not return to ball playing. Helen looks up with surprise and embraces him.

Now you see it…

…Now you don’t.

The big surprise in this movie, which sets it apart from “The Making of Broncho Billy” and dozens of similar Westerns, is that the hero does not pick up a gun by the end of the movie. He wins the day with his baseball skills instead. Of course, when G.M. Anderson tried to respond to a bullying situation with his fists, he wasn’t given the chance, so this partly depends on the sense of honor of one’s opponents, but it’s clear that the bandit here would have had no compunctions about shooting an unarmed man or a woman. One odd “continuity error,” that probably no one cared about at the time is that the insert shot introducing the baseball doesn’t match the long shot – in the shots before and after the insert, Harry is holding the bag of money, but the insert shot shows him fondling the ball with both hands and nothing else in them. I was also struck by Helen Case’s performance, in which she frequently acts out what she’s describing to the characters. This would have been frowned on in silent films just a few years later, and usually does look like “over-acting,” but somehow she makes it seem natural, like it’s part of how her character communicates normally. I quite enjoyed her playful approach to acting.

There’s a bit of a mystery about the production of this movie. On-screen credits claim it comes from “Broncho Movie Company” and there’s even an “S&A” at the end with an Indian head, giving the impression that this was released by Essanay, the company that made the Broncho Billy movies. I thought perhaps it was an early release from their studio in Niles, California. But, so far as I know Francis Ford never worked for Essanay, and the imdb (admittedly an imperfect source) lists the producer as Thomas Ince. If that’s the case, Ince may have been deliberately trying to horn in on Essanay’s success with the “Broncho” and “S&A” references. Today, that’d get you a lawsuit, but in the freewheeling early days of film, a lot of things went unchallenged!

Director: Francis Ford

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Harold Lockwood, Helen Case, Joe King

Run Time: 12 Min

I have not found this movie available for free online. However, you can see a clip from it here.

Uncle Sam Donates for Liberty Bonds (1919)

Like “Uncle Sam vs. the IWW-Bolsheviki Rat” and “United Snakes of America,” this is a late-teens propaganda movie from the Ford Company. Unlike those, it has a positive message about supporting the troops, rather than a negative one about fighting internal enemies.

The frame centers on a large chest, labeled “U.S. War Chest,” with symbolic figures to either side. To the left is Uncle Sam, in his traditional hat and coat. To the right is a robed female figure, who may represent “victory,” “Columbia,” or just an idealized American Womanhood. They open the chest and inside the lid is written, “1st Liberty Loan: Prepare for War.” The woman gestures toward the chest and Uncle Sam pulls out a sockfull of money to toss in. They close and open the chest and now it reads, “2nd Liberty Loan: Equip.” Uncle Sam throws in his cuffs and collar. The next time, it reads, “3rd Liberty Loan: Transport.” Now Uncle Sam gives his jacket. Next, it says, “4th Liberty Loan: Fight.” Uncle Sam contributes his vest. Finally, they open it to see, “Victory Liberty Loan: Pay Our Debts and Bring Back Our Boys.” Uncle Sam throws in his shirt front and his hat. The movie ends as an animator’s hand appears to sign for the Ford Motor Company underneath the words, “Sure, We’ll Finish the Job!”

I was almost surprised by a movie from an ostensibly “right wing” source that advocated Americans giving money to support the government. Today, the message of Uncle Sam’s brief striptease would probably be that Americans are already expected to pay too much in taxes, and then they are duped into voluntarily supporting the government by buying worthless bonds as well. But this is not Ford’s intent. He is demonstrating that an ideal patriot (Uncle Sam) is one who gives to support the just cause of the war, even after it seems that he has no more to give, and even after the fighting is finished. No doubt, he believed that with hard work over the next few years, Sam would soon be able to buy back all of his clothes. That kind of optimism is hard to find today.

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min

I have been unable to find this movie for free on the Internet. Please comment if you do.

His Last Game (1909)

This short film from Independent Moving Pictures (the I.M.P.) has many elements that would appear in later films by D.W. Griffith, but with a somewhat surprising ending. It uses baseball to tell a story of honor and racial strife.

The movie opens by telling us that the last game of the year is impending, with the Choctaw team facing the team from Jimtown. Bill Going, an Indian, is the star pitcher for Choctaw. We see Bill standing in front of the town bar and a large sign announcing the game. His teammates, most of whom appear to be white, come up and invite him to go drinking but he refuses, perhaps wanting to stay clear for the game. Another man in Indian garb with elaborate war feathers comes up and stands in the background as the team leaves for their drinks. Now, two gamblers in traditional Western clothing come up and offer Bill a generous pile of coins in order to throw the game. Bill counts out the coins several times, only to finally refuse. The gamblers go off to the bar together, and we see them spiking a drink in an insert shot, then they come back and offer the drink to Bill, who agrees at first, but then insists on switching drinks with one of them. When that one fails to drink, Bill throws his drink at him. Now, the gambler, outraged, pulls his gun. Bill quickly disarms and shoots him. Now the sheriff suddenly comes out of the bar, to see Bill shoot down a white man. The other Indian watches as the sheriff arrests him on the spot.

The next scene is labeled “swift Western justice” by an intertitle. We see a group of grave-diggers in the background, and Bill and the sheriff in the foreground. The Indian tries to remonstrate with the sheriff to no avail, but then Bill’s team arrive and they ask the sheriff to let him live long enough to pitch for them. The sheriff agrees, but insists that the other Indian stand in his place. If Bill doesn’t come back in time, he will execute this man instead. Bill and the Indian agree to the terms. The sheriff sends a note to the judge asking for a stay of execution, if Bill keeps his word. The next sequence shows the ball game, all shot from behind the home plate. We see the Jimtown players gain several bases, but then Bill runs up and pitches a shutout. The Choctaws win. The team carries Bill back to the bar on their shoulders, then offers him a large drink to celebrate. Bill is about to drink when he remembers his promise. He throws down the bottle and runs back to the grave site. The grave diggers are now a firing squad, and are just about to shoot the Indian when Bill arrives. He takes the man’s place, but the Indian signals that he hears hoofbeats, putting his ear to the ground in cliché fashion. Intercutting shows us that the messenger is indeed running back, but the sheriff doesn’t see anything in time, so the execution proceeds. The messenger rides over the hill just as Bill is shot and his body falls into the grave. The sheriff reads the note that would have saved Bill’s life, just seconds too late, and the team arrives to mourn his loss.

I.M.P. was one of the companies that later went into making Universal Pictures, and this movie was produced by Carl Laemmle, senior, the head of that operation. I.M.P. was also famous for defying the Edison Trust and operating independently, and this movie would have been shot in Fort Lee, New Jersey, the site of their operations and much of the American film industry at the time. They made movies for the burgeoning Nickelodeon market, and indeed Laemmle and his partners had started out as Nickelodeon theater owners. This movie demonstrates that concepts of editing which are often attributed to a later period had already come into use, if in rather primitive form, at the time. The inter-cutting between the messenger and the execution scene is reminiscent of Griffith’s 1911 film, “The Lonedale Operator,” although here the hero is unable to save the day in time. I found myself reflecting that if Bill had been white, the story probably would not have ended the same way. The “noble savage” story almost always had a tragic ending, however, and here Bill is killed by “swift Western justice” that has no sympathy for his situation or ethical behavior. Bill’s relationship with alcohol is also interesting – he never actually drinks, but is repeatedly tempted by drink and appears eager to do so, each time realizing just in time that it would be a mistake. Also interesting was the decision to shoot the entire ball game from a single angle, one in which the players frequently obscure the action from the camera. Showing baseball to audiences was still a new thing at the time, and more sophisticated ways to demonstrate it were yet to be developed. Note that the scene of the two gamblers drinking shows the I.M.P. logo prominently – still a common practice at the time to discourage film piracy.

Director: Unknown, possibly Harry Solter

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 12 Min

I have been unable to find this film for free on the Internet. You can see a brief segment here.

Uncle Sam and the Bolsheviki-IWW Rat (1919)

This anti-Communist propaganda cartoon, presented in the style of a newspaper political comic, was produced by the Ford Motor Company at the height of the American “Red Scare.” It uses heavy-handed propaganda to make a fairly blunt (if dubious) comment.

As the movie opens, Uncle Sam is represented as a farmer in a barn stocked with corn. Bags of corn in front of Uncle Sam read “American Institutions” and a speech-bubble from Uncle Sam identifies the corn as “the fruits of our labor.” Then, a rat begins chewing its way through the wall. Uncle Sam crouches down behind the bags with a shovel, proclaiming, “I’ll get that varmint,” and a large black rat comes out of the hole. On it is written “Bolsheviki-IWW.” The rat is heedless of Uncle Sam and goes over to the corn, eagerly grabbing a piece in its jaws. Uncle Sam brings the shovel down on top of it, killing it, the hefts the rat out of the window with the shovel. He proclaims, “Bolshevists are the rats of civilization” and the movie ends.

Henry Ford, in addition to being a successful industrialist, was heavily active in the American far right. He was responsible for the printing of the anti-Semitic “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” in this country, and his news magazine, “The Dearborn Independent” proclaimed any number of conspiracy theories that would fit right into INFOWARS today. With the successful revolution in Russia, and several lesser failed revolutions igniting throughout Europe at the end of the First World War, Ford’s crowd was increasingly concerned about the possibility of foreign influences fomenting labor unrest in the United States. The Industrial Workers of the World was a small but very radical labor union that mostly focused on organizing unskilled laborers, including immigrants. It is unlikely that the USSR, strapped for cash and fighting a Civil War at home, had much to offer their comrades in the IWW besides emotional support in 1919, but accuracy in reporting has never been important in political cartoons (or Internet memes). The real irony of this movie, though, is that it depicts organized labor as “stealing” the fruits of their own work from the embodiment of American society. How did Uncle Sam manage to steal all that corn from the rats in the first place?

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Run Time: 1Min

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

Funeral of Vera Kholodnaia (1919)

This Soviet-era newsreel footage is something of the “end of an era” in Russian filmmaking. Evgeni Bauer had died between the revolutions, and most of his important colleagues would soon flee Russia for Paris. The great, innovative movies of the Tsarist period were quickly forgotten as new experimental styles were developed by Vertov, Eisenstein, and others. But now, Vera Kholodnaia, known as the “Queen of the Screen,” succumbed to the flu epidemic that killed millions of Europeans in the year following the First World War. There were immediate speculations about poisoning and Bolshevik plots, with nothing ever proven. Despite the deliberate destruction of many of her films by the State, she had been rehabilitated as a kind of revolutionary heroine, and a large ceremonial funeral was authorized in Odessa. Thousands attended, and the Soviet newsreel footage of her coffin being taken to its final resting place may be the best-known movie of her today. It begins with a title card with her name, followed by seemingly random clips from her movies, then an image of her lying in state with the date of her death superimposed. Then the funeral procession is shown, with the streets of Odessa filled with mourners, and an ornate white coffin lifted by six pallbearers.

Director: Peter Chardynin

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Vera Kholodnaya

Run Time: 2 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Babe Ruth Kinogram (?)

This may or may not actually qualify as a Century Film, but it seemed pointless to wait until one could be certain before reviewing it. It is a light-hearted piece of “human interest” from a newsreel starring a famous figure.

The opening intertitle establishes that the audience can expect a “surprise,” but the film imagery begins with a prosaic view of an experienced potter at his wheel. As the clay spins, it takes on new forms under his skilled hands. The apparent ease with which he transforms it seems to recall thousands of years of the development of his trade. After only a few seconds of this, the “surprise” is announced: “Who should drop in by Mr. & Mrs. BABE RUTH.” They stand behind the potter and watch him at work on a smaller pot, both appearing completely absorbed in watching his hands at their work. Babe removes a glove and touches the potter’s shoulder and a new intertitle says that he “turns from swatter to potter.” The final image shows Babe working on a very simple pot with both his hands, while his foot pumps away to keep the wheel turning. He looks up at the camera and the scene ends. Read the rest of this entry »

The Man with the Rubber Head (1901)

Alternate Title: L’Homme a la Tete en Cahoutchouc

This trick film from Georges Méliès is quite simple, but may represent one of the most important innovations Méliès contributed to cinema. It also is, as usual for him, a fun and whimsical example of a magic show.

The proscenium-style frame shows us the workroom of a doctor, perhaps a chemist or alchemist. Read the rest of this entry »

Stella Maris (1918)

One of Mary Pickford’s biggest hits of 1918 was this drama, in which she not only gets to grow out her perpetual childhood, but also plays dual roles of young girls who become young women. It demonstrates differing audience expectations of the time to our own, especially in terms of “happy endings,” but displays Mary’s talents to their fullest.

At the beginning of the film, Mary’s characters are still in late childhood. The first, the eponymous Stella Maris, is paralyzed and lives in her bed. Fortunately she has been raised by wealthy guardians Sir and Lady Blount (Ida Waterman and Herbert Standing) dedicated to her happiness. Unfortunately, that dedication goes to something of an extreme – Stella is protected from any information about the world that might upset her or make her aware that there is “sorrow, poverty, or death” in the world. This tends to make her a bit spoiled and idealistic. The other young girl is Unity Blake, an orphan in a classically Dickensian orphan house who lives with all of the evils Stella is shielded from. The opulence and beauty of Stella’s world is contrasted with the squalor and hard work of Unity’s in a series of intercut scenes.

In one of these scenes, a prominent relative of the Blounts comes to visit Stella in her room. This young man (Conway Tearle) is referred to as the “Great High Belovedest” and tells her stories of his “castle” where he lives. In reality, he is John Risca, a prominent journalist who hides his alcoholic wife (Marcia Manon) in an apartment. He leaves her because he cannot stand her drinking or her cruelty, but he commits to continuing to support her. She decides to adopt a girl, because servants keep quitting on her and an orphan would have nowhere else to go. Of course, the girl she selects is Unity. Unity is sent over to her home without any guide, and we see her reactions to the world of London – in her way, she is quite as sheltered as Stella. She is quite crushed when she realizes that her new mother intends to give her more work, but no love.

Unity reacts as a customer sends back a steak in a restaurant.

This arrangement doesn’t last long, because one day some street kids steal Unity’s basket of groceries while she is out shopping. When she returns empty-handed, her adoptive mother reacts with rage, beating her to within an inch of her life. The neighbors hear the row, and the police are called. Mrs. Risca is arrested and sentenced to three years imprisonment. In the meanwhile, John agrees to take Unity on, and treats her with kindness and gentleness. They live together with “Aunt Gladys” who wants to punish the child when she lies, but John knows that she lies because she is afraid of getting another beating.

Joining the “family.”

Meanwhile, as the three years pass, Stella Maris is able to get an operation that allows her to walk. She has blossomed into a young adult, and her feelings for the “Great High Blovedest” have matured as well, and appear to be reciprocated. But, when John wishes to confess to her of his previous marriage, he is prevented by Mrs. Blount, who is still trying to protect Stella from knowing about evil. Stella is picking it up on her own, of course, now that she can walk. At one point she asks for “a few thousand pounds” to give to a starving family she sees near the house. Unity has also fallen in love with her new guardian, and tries to overcome her homely looks and poor education to get him to notice her.

Stella decides to go and visit the castle, which she dreams of living in with John. Of course, the limo driver takes her to John’s old address, where the newly released Mrs. Risca is once again residing. She looks about in horror, breaking down into tears when Mrs. Risca reveals who she is. She breaks off relations with John and rages at her family about all of the evil and pain in the world. Unity sees how heartbroken John is from this, and realizes that he will never forget Stella Maris. She also realizes that so long as Mrs. Risca is alive, he will forever be unhappy. She devises a plan and steals one of John’s guns, then uses the key she has kept all these years to the Risca apartment and goes in, threatening Mrs. Risca. When Mrs. Risca responds with more callousness and brutality, she kills her, and then herself.

This, of course, releases John from any obligations. Stella Maris comes to the conclusion that joy and wonder can only exist because there is also pain and evil in the world, and she forgives John and her guardians for lying to her. Aunt Gladys convinces Stella’s wealthy relatives to give John another chance and not think badly about Unity for she helped free him from his abusive wife. John is reunited with Stella and they marry.

I was quite honestly rooting for Unity the whole time, and I was pretty disappointed once I realized that the outcome would be her death and John marrying Stella Maris. Not that I wanted him to marry his adoptive daughter, either (because, ew), but I wanted Unity to realize that there were other possibilities for her happiness and grow up to pursue them. I suspect many modern viewers would respond the same way, but the logic of the time was that Unity had fallen in love with a man “above her station,” and this could only end in tragedy. Of the two characters, I found Unity to be more sympathetic and appealing. Stella is obviously spoiled (through no fault of her own, but still) and her development is far less convincing. She’s mostly there to be sweet and pretty, then to be heartbroken and unreasonable, and finally to provide the standard happy ending for the male lead. She has little sense of agency, and when she does try to do something on her own (feeding the family, for example, or visiting the castle), it is just a reflection of her ignorance.

Mary Pickford plays both roles excellently, however, and this movie decidedly demonstrates her versatility. I must admit with some embarrassment that the first time I watched it I didn’t actually realize she was playing Unity and I went to see who “that actress” was because I thought she had outperformed Mary Pickford! I think it’s a tribute to her and to the director that a modern viewer could be so bamboozled. Lighting choices reinforce the differences, and the different worlds the two girls occupy. The two don’t have a lot of scenes together, and of course “twinning” effects date back to Georges Méliès, so this isn’t so much a measure of special effects as it is of acting. Shots that do have them together are also carried  by the very natural way in which Pickford “talks to herself,” although it’s easy enough to see where the screen has been split.

The film was apparently the second highest-grossing film of the year (records from this period are not precise) and helped solidify Pickford’s already powerful position as a star. It was written for her by her friend Frances Marion and directed by Marshall Neilan, who had also directed “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm,” “The Little Princess,” and later “Amarilly of Clothes-Line Alley”  and “M’Liss,” so this movie shows the power Pickford had to choose her productions and her production team. Although we often think of her in terms of her naively innocent characters, like Stella herself, she was a powerful businesswoman, with all the grit of Unity Blake and even the professional acumen of John Risca as well.

Director: Marshall Neilan

Camera:Walter Stradling

Starring: Mary Pickford, Ida Waterman, Herbert Standing, Conway Tearle, Marcia Manon, Josephine Crowell, Teddy the Dog, Gustav von Seyffertitz

Run Time: 1hr, 28 Min

You can watch it for free: here and here (without music) or here (with music).

The Hat with Many Surprises (1901)

This short film from Georges Méliès plays on the classic magician’s act of pulling things (no rabbits, in this case) out of a silk hat. It reflects his increasing comfort with the use of camera trickery to make things appear and disappear.

Méliès walks onto a stage in classic magician’s garb, with a cloak and a top hat. The set is dressed to be the interior of a comfortable apartment, with a portrait and a cabinet in the background. The first surprises actually come from the cloak. He takes it off and uses it to conjure a table, then it turns from a black cloak to a white tablecloth. Then he turns back to the hat, and produces from it plates, glasses, napkins, a decanter, and other table settings. Then, he looks a bit thoughtful and suddenly there is a fan in his hand. He fans it and it becomes larger, and then he fans the hat and it suddenly becomes an over-sized cardboard cutout of a hat. From this, he is able to pull out four chairs, and then the dinner companions: a squabbling couple and then a king and queen are produced. He calls forth a maid to begin serving them. Then, having completed the trick, he suddenly leaps onto the table, which crashes through the floor. The portrait comes to life and begins berating the diners, who flee in terror. Méliès re-appears and takes a bow, incidentally turning the hat and cloak back to normal.

There’s not too much here we haven’t seen before, but Méliès is always a fun presence. He’s fairly subdued in this until the end, not leaping about or being overly animated, just letting the illusions carry the story forward. Of course, much of this movie would have worked nearly as well on stage, but he quickly took it to places that only the cinema would allow. So far as I can see, there was no internal logic to the final chaos – it was just a funny way to end the film. I certainly wasn’t expecting the portrait to suddenly come to life, that was probably the biggest surprise of all!

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 2 Min, 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here.