Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

The Star Boarder (1914)

Way back in 2014, I watched every movie Charlie Chaplin made at Keystone Studios, but there were so many (and so many other things I wanted to cover), that I never finished reviewing them all. Now I’m taking the time to fill some of those gaps, starting with this early film about Charlie getting in trouble in a boarding house.

The movie begins with a wide shot in a kitchen, establishing the household staff. Minta Durfee is the landlady, and she supervises a man in an apron (Edgar Kennedy) and another woman as they do the cooking. A boy (Gordon Griffith) has a small camera box, but Minta shoes him away. Minta goes into the dining room and sets up the dinner, then rings a bell to summon the guests. A large group of them appears, but we cut back and forth to Charlie’s room, where he is lounging and smoking a cigarette. He slowly gets up and dresses for dinner, while Minta continues ringing away. He flirts a bit with Minta on his way into the dining room, and Edgar glares at him as he serves the food. After dinner, another man seems to want to talk to Minta, but Charlie throws his napkin at him. He and Minta flirt a bit more until Edgar interrupts them.

 

Later, Minta and Charlie are play tennis together, though Charlie’s occasional pratfalls suggest he may have had a few drinks in his room first.  He knocks a tennis ball well out of court, and they go to look for it together. The child spots them and begins snapping photos, all the while laughing uproariously. Edgar again finds them and intervenes, finding the ball before either of them, since they seem more interested in one another. Minta now goes over to a rosebush, climbing up on a ladder, but falls off when Charlie comes over to her, and again the child is snapping photos and laughing. They go back to the house together, and Edgar escorts an older lady boarder. Left alone briefly in the kitchen, Charlie raids the liquor cabinet and there are several more pratfalls as he drunkenly attempts to sneak up to his room with two bottles and a pie.

 

 

The child now approaches another boarder (Harry McCoy), and shows him the slides he has prepared and he agrees to set up a projector so the whole house can enjoy his slideshow. When the audience is assembled, the child, laughing hard again, starts to show them shots of Charlie and Minta together, though he also shows Edgar with his companion, and soon the audience devolves into chaos as Edgar and Charlie fight and bump into the others, causing a general rout. Charlie manages to escape the room, stumbling through the screen, and Minta spanks the naughty child.

 

There are no surviving intertitles on the print I’ve been able to see, so a certain amount has to be inferred. Evidently, Minta and Edgar are married, although the cliché is for the landlady of a boarding house to be widowed or a spinster. Also, evidently Gordon is their son. Minta really does seem quite receptive to Charlie’s advances, and (surprisingly for the time), we see Charlie quite openly admiring her backside. No doubt this contributed to the idea that his movies were “vulgar.” Charlie is in full “Little Tramp” getup at this stage, even his mustache is down to the familiar width, and some of his signature gestures (such as his “what, me?” shrug) are clearly established. He’s still building a lot of his act around “funny drunk” bits, and he’s less inclined towards violence in this picture than in others around the same time. That doesn’t stop the movie from ending in a classic Keystone riot, however.

Director: George Nichols

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Minta Durfee, Edgar Kennedy, Gordon Griffith, Harry McCoy, Alice Davenport, Phyllis Allen, William Nigh, Al St. John

Run Time: 11 Min, 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

A Reckless Rover (1918)

Another short slapstick comedy distributed by Ebony Studios, this movie once again points up the troubled history of race relations in America. Although the studio was managed and operated by African Americans, it was owned by whites, and as this movie illustrates, it often represented their ideas of what Black entertainment could or should be.

Uh oh.

Our movie begins with a title card and an intertitle, each of which is illustrated with large-lipped caricatures of a Black man. We are told that our hero Rastus (Sam Robinson) makes a sloth look like “a human dynamo of energy,” and we first see him lying in bed as his landlady bangs on the door to get her back rent. She finds a policeman, kitted out in Keystone Kop regalia, to assist her in getting into the room. She doesn’t want her property damaged by breaking in the door, however, so she gets a chair so that the policeman can get in via the window above the door. Rastus pushes the window up so that the cop is stuck, and he kicks and makes faces as the landlady struggles to pull him back through. Rastus goes back to bed and stuffs a pillow in the cop’s face to keep him quiet before he falls back down on the landlady. Now the cop is determined to break in the door and he is soon leaping across the bed while Rastus darts underneath from one side to the other to evade him. Rastus grabs his hat and coat and leaps out the window into the back alley. The landlady, meanwhile, has gotten a shotgun and shoots the cop in the backside, propelling him out the window as well.

The chase proceeds through unpaved alleys and muddy streets, though Rastus soon evades the cop by hiding inside a wooden box as the officer runs around the corner. To be safe, however, he decides to go into a Laundromat run by “Charley Moy” a Black man in yellowface, and steal some new clothes. Moy catches him, however, and threatens him with his iron. Rastus claims that the wind blew the clothes on the ground and Charlie decides to hire him to work at the laundry. Now Rastus has his pick of the clothing, and he chooses a new striped shirt and a tie with spots on it. Now an attractive young woman comes into the shop with the ticket for the very order he has been pillaging. He gives it to her and steals a kiss before she slaps him and leaves. Now Moy uses his iron on Rastus’s backside to encourage him to work harder and Rastus replies by whacking him with a wet garment, even as another customer enters the shop. When Charlie throws the rag back at Rastus, he misses, and of course hits the customer. Soon he is throwing everything in the place at Rastus, and Moy applauds as he catches each parcel without dropping them, but then expresses dismay when Rastus drops the lot into the washer to catch one last item. The customer grabs his bundle and goes, while Rastus runs all of the remaining ones through the wringer (without opening them first).

The management would like to apologize for this image.

Now the lady customer arrives at home and inspects her laundry. She discovers a missing stocking (it’s the “tie” Rastus is wearing), and goes back to the shop. Meanwhile, Rastus has found the boss’s opium pipe and tries a few drags from it. At first, he looks like it is making him nauseous, but soon he starts spinning in place with a blissful look on his face. He prances about until he burns himself on the stove, then gets into the washer to cool off. Steam comes out of his ears. Charlie finds him and surmises what has happened, warning him against smoking from the tin marked in Chinese letters – a fade shows us that they translate to “Rat Poison.” The lady customer returns, and Rastus locks Moy in the back room so he can have her to himself. She recognizes the stocking around his neck this time, and he steals another kiss, trying to placate her by giving her other customer’s parcels. She throws these back at him and at that moment Moy breaks in and knocks a shelf on top of Rastus, pinning him to the counter.

They really don’t get better, do they?

The lady customer finds the cop from before and reports what has happened, so he goes to the store to investigate. Charlie comes out to try to smooth things over, but Rastus hides with the iron and hits he cop whenever his back is turned, making him think it is Charlie doing it. The cop hits  Charlie and Rastus hits the cop and they both fly backward – Charlie to the back room and the cop into the street. The cop beats the ground with his nightstick, summoning a variety of other African American policemen in Keystone garb, most of whom appear to be napping on their beats. The four cops go into the store, but Rastus sets up the unconscious Moy to be their target, backside first. The cops fire their soda powder guns into the room, and Rastus calls out advice so that they will hit Moy. Rastus sneaks out the back, and the cops rush in and start trashing the place. The last shot shows Rastus running down an alleyway.

Not the best print, though that can be merciful.

The movie itself is pretty primitive for 1918 – it looks like something Keystone could have put out five years earlier – and this isn’t helped by a print that is damaged in multiple places. The comic timing and acrobatics of some of the players (particularly Robinson and the main featured cop) is at least at the level of an “average” Keystone movie, but there are no budding Chaplins here. The use of Chicago city streets, apparently on the poorer side of town, is interesting to see. Who would have thought that there would be muddy, unpaved areas in Chicago 100 years ago?

I’ve been soft-balling criticism of these Ebony films because I want to find something good in movies that at least put Black actors and crews to work at this early time, but this one is outright offensive on multiple levels. If it’s not the Chinese caricature, it’s the horrible cartoons on the intertitles, and the depiction of African Americans as lazy, shiftless, unreliable, thieving, and generally stupid throughout. I’ve read that Ebony took some heat at the time for continuing to show movies they made before 1917, when the management was all white, but this movie is clearly from a later time, evidenced by a poster for “Hearts of the World” that Rastus runs past near the end. So, the Black management somehow thought this was OK, apparently. It is the case that the movie borrows its style heavily from Keystone comedies, and it is possible to imagine Ford Sterling or Al St. John playing a character like Rastus, but in context, it’s pretty easy to see why the NAACP would have objected to this studio’s output. The only thing one can say for it, in light of recent research affirming the importance for young people to see images of people like themselves for their healthy development, is that at least the children who watched this were seeing actual Black people on screen, not white men in blackface. It’s a pretty poor compensation, in light of the messages they received about themselves and others.

Director: C.N. David

Camera: C.C. Fetty

Starring: Sam Robinson

Run Time: 14 Min

You can watch it for free: here (do so at your own risk).

A Grocery Clerk’s Romance (1912)

This early short from Mack Sennett was shot in Fort Lee, New Jersey, before he moved his new Keystone Company out to California. Not surprisingly, it is a slapstick comedy, full of violence and illogic, but with only one Kop this outing.

The movie begins by establishing a simple love triangle. James C. Morton is the “lazy husband” of a plain-looking, middle-aged (uncredited) woman. Ford Sterling is the next-door neighbor (presumably a grocery clerk, though we never see him at his duties) who likes to come over and help with her chores. Oblivious to this domestic drama, Morton heads over to a local bar to get drunk, giving him and pal Gus Pixley the opportunity to do some pratfalls. Meanwhile, Sterling has put on an apron and is amusing the wife as he hangs the laundry, camping for her as he goes. The husband now stumbles home and gets into it with Ford, who drives him off easily. When he tries to return to the bar, he is denied admittance by the local sheriff (Lincoln Plumer), who indicates that he’s had enough, so he staggers into the woods, where, as it happens, a group of foreign-looking anarchists are meeting and showing off their new bomb to each other. They immediately forget about whatever plans they had for the bomb when they discover the “spy” in the woods, and tie up Morton, lighting the fuse.

At this moment, Morton’s child, whose job up to now has been to follow him around sniffling and occasionally tugging on his sleeve, finds her father in dire straits. He tells her to run and get help, meanwhile continuing to struggle with his bonds. She dutifully runs back to mama, who faints dead away at the news. A glint comes into Sterling’s eye as he calculates “in five minutes, she’ll be a widow!” He grabs the screaming child and stashes her in the cellar. He takes out his pocketwatch and counts off the precious seconds. When he feels enough time has passed, he releases the child and wakes the woman; now he starts running through the streets to gather a crowd to come and “help” too late. Unbeknownst to him, of course, the husband has already freed himself. So, when the mob hears an explosion in the trees, and then they run up and find the husband’s hat and coat at the bomb site, they assume the worst, and so does Sterling. He very quickly proposes to the “widow,” who gladly accepts and they prepare a wedding ceremony almost instantly, everyone turning out in their finery. Morton, of course, goes back to the bar where his surprised friend tells him his wife is being married at that very moment. They rush over to interrupt the ceremony and the child finally fingers Sterling as the reason the rescue party arrived late. Ford runs off in disgrace, and Morton takes his wife in an embrace. She doesn’t look entirely pleased.

It’s odd to see Sterling without his usual makeup in this film – I actually thought it was Sennett himself at first – but his trademark over-the-top facial expressions are very much on display. The movie didn’t make me laugh, though it did get a couple of guffaws from me near the end (about par for the course for a Mack Sennett, actually). Overall, the structure of the movie reminds me of “A Muddy Romance,” “The Gusher,” and other movies Sennett would later make with Chaplin and/or Sterling and Mabel Normand. This might be seen as the template for those later films, with Sennett always ready to improvise when something interesting happens like an oil fire or a drained lake. In that sense, it’s a rare historical relic, if not exactly classic slapstick.

Director: Mack Sennett

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Ford Sterling, James C. Morton, Gus Pixley, Lincoln Plumer

Run Time: 7 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Mercy the Mummy Mumbled (1918)

We’re back with another short comedy from the Ebony Film Company, a white-owned Chicago-based company that made movies with Black performers intended for African American audiences. As with “Two Knights of Vaudeville,” the result is a somewhat problematic piece of the legacy of race in America.

The movie opens with a professor placing a classified ad for a genuine mummy to use for experimentation. The professor’s daughter is dating a young man, Bill, and the professor comes home to find them snuggling on the couch, but ignores them in order to test out his new formula in the kitchen. He takes a mounted stuffed duck from the wall and injects the formula, causing an explosion that frightens a small boy peeping in the window. The duck comes to life! It also runs all over the place, wreaking havoc on the kitchen. When Bill comes in to investigate, the professor hits him with the broom intended for the duck. Bill takes his chance to ask the professor for his daughter’s hand in marriage, and the professor agrees on the condition that his formula prove successful with a mummy. This gives Bill an idea.

The next day, Bill goes to a costume shop and picks up a phony sarcophagus. He offers a shoe shine boy ten dollars to play a mummy. Meanwhile, we learn that emissaries from Egypt are in town looking for a stolen mummy, and they spot the professor’s ad. Bill takes the boy back to his place and dresses him up as the mummy and puts him in the sarcophagus. He calls the professor and tells him to come down and pick up his mummy. While waiting, he runs into a friend and brings him in on the scam. The friend sells the “mummy” for a thousand dollars, which he and Bill fight over while the shoeshine boy pockets a goodly portion of it unnoticed. Bill gets some porters to cart the sarcophagus over to the professor’s house. The porters are insufficiently cautious, and the sarcophagus drops out the back, being dragged behind the cart by the rope they used to partially tie it down. The “mummy” yells and gets them to stop and put it back on the cart more securely. The two Egyptian agent observe the mummy’s arrival, since they are now watching the professor’s house. They request admittance of the daughter and ask for the professor to hand it over, so he throws them out.

Now the professor is ready to perform his test, injecting his formula into a genuine mummy. When he does inject it into the shoeshine boy, he screams and starts flailing and running all around the room (much like the duck did, actually). The professor manages to seal it back inside the sarcophagus, but he is hurt in the process and his daughter ministers to his aid. The two Egyptians take advantage of the distraction to sneak into the house and steal the now-unconscious mummy from the sarcophagus. Bill and Lulu head out to find a parson. The professor nails up the sarcophagus to prevent further mummy attacks. The Egyptians are genuflecting before their prize when the shoeshine boy wakes up and terrifies them. He manages to free himself from the bandages and finds all of the professor’s money in the wraps.

There’s a lot of familiar caricatures of Black life here, not least including the many scare-takes the mummy makes possible, as well as the greed and laziness evinced by Bill and his allies. Still, we do get an African American professor, who has authority over his daughter’s future, placing him as an equal to white patriarchs in this regard. He may be a bit nutty (typical of professors in comedies), but he is able to bring a duck back to life. Certainly this movie is less offensive than something like “Watermelon Patch” and it is something of a relief to see actual Black actors as opposed to white actors in blackface in movies of this time, perhaps that would have appealed to the intended audience as well. The young NAACP did denounce Ebony for this sort of movie, however, and even went so far as to suggest that comedies in general were inappropriate material for Black productions. They weren’t alone – a lot of progressive-minded people regarded the slapstick of the era as “vulgar” and degrading. It would be a long time before African American comics like Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy came along to challenge stereotypes rather than reinforce them.

Director: R.W. Phillips

Camera: C.C. Fetty

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 14 Min

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

A Western Redemption (1911)

A Broncho Billy Western starring Gilbert M. Anderson that allows him to play a bad man who sees the light and goes straight, not for the first time. Interestingly, this is a rare case in which a bandit is shown in relation to his parents.

An intertitle informs us that a member of the notorious car barn gang has been apprehended and spilled the beans, and we witness the results as Broncho Billy (Identified in interititles as “Tom”) is arrested at his breakfast table in front of his parents. Shortly thereafter, his dad is fired from his job and his mother receives an eviction letter. Polite society doesn’t want the relatives of a criminal around. Years later, Billy has been released and we see him wearing cowboy gear and rolling a cigarette while talking to a cohort. Said cohort watches the stagecoach from a distance and follows it into town when it delivers a cash box to a general store. The proprietor helps a guard to set up a place to sleep next to it and the man beds down. Billy and his buddy take a couple shots of whiskey for courage and ride into town together. They put on masks and hold up the guard, tying him up and taking the key to the cash box. The other criminal goes into the sleeping quarters and holds up the proprietor. He finds a photo of Billy’s parents and realizes that is who they are robbing, deciding to conceal this from Billy. He rejoins Billy and the two ride off with sacks of loot. The second man insists that they divvy up the loot back at the hideout and each man goes his own way. Billy eventually finds a familiar pocket watch in his share, and concludes what has happened. He chases the man down and finds him sleeping by the side of the trail. The two fight, and Billy gets his guns on him before the other can draw. He holds him at gunpoint and makes him ride back to town. He brings him and the loot to the sheriff, confessing the crime and turning his partner in. They are handcuffed together and taken to a cell. A final shot shows Billy, years later, at the supper table in prayer with his aged parents, the father saying grace.

This is a pretty straightforward example of its series. It makes no effort to tie Anderson’s character in to other Broncho Billy storylines, and doesn’t even refer to him as “Billy.” It uses forward-facing intertitles that telegraph the action before you see it, in some cases spoiling or confusing the story by coming too soon before what they announce. The camera is stationary and generally at medium shot or further from the action (we can’t always see the actors’ feet, at least). Some shots are held for a very long time, even though not that much is happening – given the short run time I was surprised at how much of the guard getting ready for bed was shown. Still, Anderson tries to maximize the drama and sympathy we develop for his character in a short time, suggesting that he has a kind of code or sense of responsibility despite his villainous career. It does seem like the partner could have insisted on keeping everything he stole from the parents, giving Billy a bigger share of the payroll and prevented him discovering the watch, but I suppose it also represents how greedy he was that he didn’t do that (and it would have ruined the story).

Director: Gilbert .M. Anderson

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Gilbert M. Anderson, Arthur Mackley, Julia Mackley, John B O’Brien, Brinsley Shaw, Harry Todd, Augustus Carney

Run Time: 16 Min

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

Children Digging for Clams (1895)

This very short film by Auguste and Louis Lumière is typical of their early films demonstrating daily life in motion. It provides a bit of a look at the world of 125 years ago, though mostly leaving you wanting to see more.

A dozen or so children are in a tide pool, using a variety of devices to try to locate clams. Fairly little actual digging takes place; the more prominent children are using something like a spaghetti strainer on a stick to strain through the watery sand and try to pick out larger objects. Some of the older children are paying more attention to the camera than to their ostensible work, though the little ones remain intent on finding clams. A group of adults, mostly women, stands in the background watching. All of the women are dressed in full-length dresses with feather hats, making me wonder if it was a cold day at the beach or if this was just how everyone in France dressed for a day on the beach at the time. The children (mostly girls) have hiked up their skirts in order to wade in the tide pool, and one or two little boys are in short pants. All of them, apart from one very small toddler, are also wearing hats, probably to protect from the sun. Early on in the movie, a mule-drawn cart passes by in the background, filled with children who are enjoying the ride. I get the impression that this represents middle-class children’s entertainment, not the tasks of hard-working French children who hunt clams for a living.

Director: August Lumière

Camera: August Lumière

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 45 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Two Knights of Vaudeville (1915)

With race very much in the headlines at this moment, it seems like a good time to go back and look at a bit of of African American film history. This short comedy was released by the Ebony Film Company, a Chicago studio formed specifically to create black-cast films.

The movie begins by showing a white man walking out of a theater presenting vaudeville, accidentally dropping the tickets he has just purchased. Shortly  thereafter, our stars (Jimmy Marshall and Frank Montgomery) find them lying on the sidewalk. They are overjoyed – they can go to the theater tonight! They rush off to invite a girl (Florence McClain) to join them. The white man walks back onto the screen, scowling and looking down at the ground. The trio walks back to Florence’s house and decides to meet there later, but they should dress up first for their night on the town. The two men look rather uncomfortable in their collars, but Florence does them proud.

They go to the theater, where a white doorman looks hesitant to admit them at first, but it turns out that they can go in, they just can’t bring a black dog that tried to sneak in with them. They take up a position in a box right near the front of the stage as a performer is singing. She ends as our heroes take up their position in the box, and is followed by a “Bending Girl” – more or less a contortionist, though all we see her do is a few cartwheels. The protagonists are fascinated, and also quite loud in their applause and boisterous in their occasional emulations of what they watch. Next up is a juggler, doing sort of a Chaplinesque drunk act, and they enjoy his antics even more. Unfortunately, the little dog now manages to run up to them, causing the juggler to drop all of his balls and the protagonists to burst into raucous laughter. One of our heroes, trying to emulate his dexterity with his some balls, drops one onto the stage and has to run after it, at the same time as his friend drops his hat over the side and they both wind up on stage. The men are escorted out of the theater, and the women joins them in front.

Not to be discouraged so easily, they now decide to put on their own vaudeville show, a “real show.” This show has an all-black audience, and is set up in a large hall with folding chairs. The two “knights” are the stars, although they warm up the audience with a singer, who the audience does not appreciate. When one audience member throws an apple core, it knocks “her” wig  off, and we see that it is a balding man in a dress. The big act, though, is the “Wurs & Wurst” acrobats. They attempt various tumbles, getting a somewhat mixed reaction from the audience. A prankster in the audience now starts throwing flour, and some of the ladies leave. The acrobats bring out a barrel for their next trick, but when one drops it on the other, he hurls it into the audience and precipitates complete pandemonium. The final shot shows the two knights in the wreckage of barrels and benches.

When I chose to watch this, I was under the impression that “Ebony Films” was a black-owned studio, and that we’d be getting a chance to see a slice of African American history and humor, but that is sadly not the case. Ebony Films did make movies with all-black casts, intended to be screened before black audiences, but it was white-owned this film was bought from another white-owned company, and accordingly much of the humor we see here meets the expectations and stereotypes typical in other comedy of the time, including eye-rolling, eye-popping, and intertitles and signs with “funny” bad English. Still, because it was intended for African American audiences, it does avoid some of the worst offenses, and a few observations on race and inequality seem to sneak in, perhaps added by the cast themselves, or perhaps simply more obvious to a modern viewer. For example, the moment where it appears that the knights and their girl will not be admitted to the theater must have felt familiar to their black audiences, and the fact that it is the little black dog that is turned away, can be seen as a comment on how African Americans were treated like dogs in white society. In general, the way the protagonists behave shows that they are in an unfamiliar and unfriendly environment, and they are duly ejected despite having legitimate (if dubiously obtained) tickets for their seats. The visual difference between the knights isolated in their box at the white theater, and the communal seating of all people together at the homebrew vaudeville also says something about the difference in cultural expectations. Even with the harsh criticism and thrown vegetables, that world seems friendlier and more comfortable than the one which they had previously been in.

The movie isn’t especially advanced, nor especially bad, by the technical standards of 1915. There are insert shots of the tickets, the editing is clean and advances the story effectively, and we see multiple angles of scenes, rather than the camera being locked down until a performance is complete. Much of our experience of the white vaudeville, especially the contortionist, is demonstrated through reaction shots of the principals, while there is more inter-cutting between audience and performers in the black vaudeville, creating another visual contrast. It’s essentially equal in production value to the work Charlie Chaplin was doing for Essanay, another Chicago company, at the time. It’s safe to say that Charlie was getting paid a lot better than these actors, however.

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Jimmy Marshall, Frank Montgomery, Florence McClain, Bert Murphy

Run Time: 11 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

An Impossible Balancing Feat (1902)

Coming five years before “Kiriki Japanese Acrobats,” this short by Georges Méliès pioneers, and in some ways outdoes, that movie’s central effect, despite limitations set by the primitive technology. As always, Méliès manages to bring a sense of fun and flair to a simple performance.

A proscenium-style set depicts a stage dressed with Greek statuary and a small stone tower. The door of the tower opens up and Méliès appears inside, sitting on a chair. He comes forward on the stage, bows, and gestures, causing the set to disappear. He removes his outer clothing with a flourish, now he is wearing an all-white costume. He moves to center stage, and three “twins” come out from him, one standing to his right, two to his left. The original sits back down in the chair and the first twin ascends the wall, seeming to balance on top of his head. Eventually, he turns over and is doing a headstand on the head of the original, who extends his arms and the two other twins balance on his hands, eventually doing headstands as well. Suddenly the twins disappear and Méliès is holding two flags (they go by really fast, but I think one is French and one American). They disappear and Méliès snaps his fingers and has his original suit back on. He bows for the audience and marches comically off the stage.

This movie is a fairly typical “magic show” style of trick film, such as we’ve seen many times now from Méliès. However, it combines rather more effects than one would expect in an earlier film. We have the twinning (which of course he did much more extensively in “The One-Man Band”), we have several appearances and disappearances, and we have the “balancing trick,” which uses the same effect as we saw in “The Human Fly.” In combining all of this, we have a rather more impressive array of special effects than Segundo de Chomón gave us later in “Kiriki.” However, de Chomón seems to have spent more time on perfecting the illusion than Méliès did. Objects frequently overlap in this film, and as the twins appear, both they and he original become semi-transparent, allowing us to see through them to the background, which is somewhat shaky. Presumably audiences were less picky in 1902, and just happy to see anything that looked like an impossible trick, but by 1907, they would have picked up on such sloppiness.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 1 Min, 15 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

On the Roof (1897)

This early short from Georges Méliès has no special effects to speak of, but demonstrates his use of film to show comedic narrative with minimal time and structure.

We see a set dressed a typical Parisian rooftop, framed as a proscenium. At the lower right of the screen, a window looks into the bedroom of a woman preparing for bed. Two burglars crawl along the roof of this house, breaking in through a skylight. The woman shrieks and protests, but the two overpower her and drop her from the roof. The two men proceed to fill sacks with the belongings they find in the room, while Méliès, dressed in a rather gaudy uniform, ascends the roof from the opposite side. He nearly reaches the top when a chimney he is holding onto gives way, causing him to tumble down the side of the rooftop and have to start over. Meanwhile, the thieves, alerted by all the noise he has made, prepare for his arrival. When he starts to try  to get through the skylight, they grab him and tie a heavy weight to him, immobilizing him half-in and half-out of the apartment. While he pulls out his sword and tries to free himself, they escape, although one sneaks back to steal his boots while he is in this compromised position.

This is a light, amusing comedy, probably with families and children as the expected audience, and quite possibly similar to clown acts that would have appeared on the stage of the Robert Houdin Theatre in years before Méliès started making movies. The only illusion involved is the construction of the tiny set to represent an outdoor urban space and the entrance to a full apartment, very much in line with the sort of sets that are possible on a stage, with the benefit of the camera’s inability to see the “sides” of the set, where it cuts off and becomes a stage. The narrative is minimal, with the characters lightly sketched, but it is a story, unlike much of cinema from the 19th century, and it has a beginning, a middle, and a (somewhat abrupt) end.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 1 Min, 9 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Tarzan of the Apes (1918)

The first attempt to bring the Edgar Rice Burroughs jungle hero to the screen was this early silent feature from First National. It spawned three sequels, and is remembered today as being the most faithful to the book of all of the Tarzan movies since, but how does it hold up as entertainment?

The movie begins in England, where Lord and Lady Greystoke (True Boardman and Kathleen Kirkham) are planning a trip to Africa. An older gentleman advises Alice, Lady Greystoke, to stay home – Africa is no place for a lady and besides, she won’t even be able to take her maid. Lady Greystoke, a modern woman, is disdainful and off they go. While they are on the high seas, a band of mutineers takes the ship and begins murdering the passengers. One sailor, Binns (George B. French), is sympathetic and risks his own life to save them, but he is captured by Arabs and becomes their slave while the couple are marooned on an unknown coast, nowhere near civilization. Alice dies giving birth to their son, and Lord Greystoke is at a loss as to how to nourish him without her milk. Nearby, the ape Kala has lost her baby and mourns deeply. Her tribe of apes kills Lord Greystoke and brings her the human infant.

The boy, now known as Tarzan (Gordon Griffith), is raised by Kala as her own. It never occurs to him that he isn’t an ape until one day when he sees his reflection in a pool (apparently he never noticed his hairless arms before). This sets him to thinking about his identity. He discovers the shack where his parents skeletons still lie, He finds a picture book with alphabet images and teaches himself to speak. He also steals clothing from some natives because apparently wearing clothes is a natural urge.

Meanwhile, Binns finally escapes from the Arabs after ten years and discovers the ape-boy and instructs him, but is unable to rescue him when the Arabs again intervene. He returns to England and convinces some scientists to begin an expedition to find the young Lord Greystoke. Jane Porter (Enid Markey) is the daughter of the lead scientist, and for some reason she is allowed to bring along a maid (Madame Sul-Te-Wan). Kala is killed by a native hunter, who is in turn killed by the now-adult Tarzan (Elmo Lincoln). Tarzan is smitten when he spies Jane and her father poking around the old shack, but is too shy to reveal himself. The scientists conclude that the child was killed when the apes attacked, but Binns still knows better. Some villagers kidnap Jane and Tarzan rescues her, and the two of them fall in love.

True to the book or not, this movie has a lot of problems. The main one is that it is almost completely lacking a plot. That’s probably because instead of trying to tell the full story, they only used the first half of the book, saving the second half for the sequel (“The Romance of Tarzan”). The quality of Burroughs’s work as literature can be debated, but cutting a story in half almost never improves the narrative structure. I kept waiting for the story to get started, and then suddenly it was over. This is more like an “origin story” without any payoff. It needed a clearer conflict to resolve, one that would carry over from the beginning to the end, possibly even some way to have Tarzan avenge himself on the mutineers who are ultimately responsible for his and his parents’ fate.

Another problem, which probably only bothered some audiences at the time, is the explicit and implicit racism of so much of the movie. Madame Sul-Te-Wan was one of the great pioneers of African American film acting, but in this movie she portrays a caricature of a superstitious black maid. The natives who capture Jane are every bit as subhuman and rapacious as Gus from “The Birth of a Nation.” And, of course, Tarzan is superior to them in every way, although in theory this is because he has been raised by apes, and thus is more in touch with nature, not because he is white. I haven’t even mentioned the greedy slaving Arabs, who represent both another stereotype and an alibi for the history of European enslavement of Africans.

Despite these flaws, the movie was an undisputed success in its day, grossing over 1.5 million dollars at a time when movies rarely broke one million. This is probably not least due to the convincing use of Louisiana swamps as a location for African jungles, and the thrills of Tarzan’s adventures. I also rather suspect that the thrill of seeing a half-naked (sometimes fully naked) boy and man on the screen was an appeal to audiences in those days, when there was so little nudity in cinema. I didn’t think much of Lincoln’s or Griffith’s acting, but their physiques are fully on display, and the former was definitely a muscular specimen. There are also very brief glimpses of “native” women’s breasts, but these were censored in many locales. The fights are well-edited and exciting as well, even if they lack a coherent narrative to tie them together, and there are glimpses of exotic animals that were rarely seen at the time, surely an appeal for children who lacked access to zoos. This movie may not seem like much today, but it should also be seen for what it was at the time –a spectacle that brought in the audiences and gave them their money’s worth.

Director: Scott Sidney

Camera: Enrique Juan Vallejo

Starring: Elmo Lincoln, Enid Markey, Gordon Griffith, George B. French, Madame Sul-Te-Wan, True Boardman, Kathleen Kirkham, Eugene Pallette

Run Time: 1 hr

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