Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Oracle of Delphi (1903)

This short from Georges Méliès depicts a supernatural event in an exotic time and place, but really boils down to a typical trick film using a few well-established gimmicks with a new set design to distinguish it from others.

Oracle of Delphi

The scene is that of a Pylon or temple in Egyptian style, with hieroglyphics visible in the background and two stone sphinxes set to either side of the door. A man in Egyptian-style dress approaches with a large set of keys and opens the temple doors, and two women bearing a litter with a large ornate chest on top follow him and wait while he presents the offering to the temple. He locks the door and departs, but another man has been watching, crouched behind one of the sphinxes, and he now breaks into the temple to steal the chest. He doesn’t get far, however, before he falls to the ground in terror, looking at the temple door as the image of a bearded man fades into existence. This man, evidently the Oracle, points his finger at the thief, who returns the chest. Then the two sphinxes become women and they restrain the thief while his head turns into a donkey’s head. The sphinxes return to their normal state as statues and the Oracle disappears, but the man is still cursed as the movie ends.

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Méliès seems to have been a bit confused in his mythology here. The Oracle of Delphi was a woman, not a man, and more importantly her shrine was in Greece, not Egypt. Ancient Egypt was very important for Greek mysticism, especially for followers of Pythagoras, so I thought perhaps at first that the conflation was a deliberate speculation that a Greek temple might have appeared Egyptian, but close examination reveals the temple to be just in front of the Great Pyramid, so apparently Delphi has relocated to Giza. Sphinxes do appear in Greek stories like Oedipus (no doubt borrowed from Egypt), so that’s OK. Archaeological nit-picking aside, the movie is a brief example of Méliès using substitution splices and fades to show some typical magic tricks in the context of a narrative. Unlike some of these films, there is a distinct story, not just a man in fancy dress doing a magic show, though the end leaves the lock on the door unrepaired, and the thief with no apparent way to make restitution for his crime. Justice was harsh in ancient times!

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 1 min, 34 secs

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

The Symbol of the Unconquered (1920)

Subtitled “A Story of the KKK,” this is another response by African American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux to the glorification of that organization by the likes of D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” and a reminder that some folks knew, even then, how objectionable that was. While it may be seen as polemical, this movie is a testament to the work of minorities in American cinema since the very first years.

Symbol of the Unconquered

The movie begins with the death of an “old prospector,” and the emigration of his young, light-skinned granddaughter Evon (Iris Hall) to “Oristown” which is located somewhere in the Northwest. The proprietor of the local inn is Driscoll (Lawrence Chenault) a man of mixed racial background who discriminates the more viciously against Blacks because of it. We see in a flashback how he lost the love of a white woman when she saw his mother and realized he was not pure white. He tells Evon and a Black traveling salesman (E.G. Tatum) that they have to sleep in the barn because the inn is full. That night, there is a terrible rainstorm and both are discomforted, but Evon flees in terror when she sees the man grimacing in the dark at her, evidently having thought she was alone in the place. She spends a wretched night wandering in the rain, but the next day she meets Hugh Van Allen (Walker Thompson), who is the neighbor of her grandfather’s cabin. He takes pity on her, gives her some food and takes her back to her new home, allowing her to nap in his cart on the way. When he helps her move in, he leaves her with a gun, telling her to shoot twice if she needs assistance of any kind.

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At this point in the movie, the villain, a white man named August Barr (Louis Dean), is introduced. He is assisted by an Indian “fakir” called Tugi (Leigh Whipper) and, of course Driscoll, the “mulatto” from the hotel. They buy stolen horses from some bandits and manage to sell them to Hugh, who is honest enough to return them to their rightful owner when challenged. Their bigger plan, however, is to find out where Evon’s grandfather hid documents in Evon’s cabin (from the footage and intertitles on the existing print, it’s unclear what is so valuable about these documents at this point in the film). When their accomplice sneaks into Evon’s cabin at night, she shrieks so loud that Hugh comes running, although she didn’t use the signal, and the man runs back to their “hideout” in the woods. Hugh now tracks down the former hotel manager at the saloon, and the two brawl over the stolen horses. Hugh wins fair and square, of course, but now the villain has another reason to have it in for Hugh, and vows revenge as he departs. Evon finds work in the field of her new cabin to be difficult, and goes for help to Hugh, who digs a hole for her in return for coffee and a meal. A mail carrier drops an important document, and Driscoll discovers it on a run to check the mail. He learns that it demonstrates the value of Hugh Van Allen’s land. The trio plot to frighten him if he refuses to sell to them. Meanwhile, Driscoll’s mother shows up and immediately moves in with Evon, the one nice person in town.

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When Hugh refuses to sell, the villains hire Bill Stanton, “who knows how to make people do what they don’t want to.” He comes up with a plan to terrorize Hugh by making him believe he has been targeted by the KKK. This is portrayed on the screen by showing a single robed-and-hooded rider on horseback bearing a torch and charging toward the camera in a black background, the white of the robes and sparks from the torch popping out in contrast to the Stygian darkness. After the meeting, Hugh starts to get threatening letters from “The Knights of the Black Cross” who tell him to “watch out for your life” if he does not sell out and leave town. A final letter comes while he is out of town and Stanton rallies the conspirators to dress up and ride to finally terrorize him away from the property. Driscoll tries to back out of being the lead rider, telling Barr he will be “somewhere in the vicinity.” Barr’s wife gives the alarm to Evon and Driscoll’s mother, and Evon rides off seeking help. A strange sequence follows in which we see many hooded figures now riding through the night while Evon rides through the woods in daylight in intercut scenes.

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Unfortunately, a substantial amount of footage is missing from the surviving print that prevents us from seeing the climax, in which “a colored man with bricks” evidently fights off the Klan riders and the conspiracy is broken. We get to see the oil fields established on Van Allen’s old land, and the large office Hugh now works from. He greets Evon there, and finally realizes that she is also African American, and therefore marriageable to him. The two embrace at last as Abraham, now in the garb of a traveling salesman, briefly looks in at them in a comic moment as the curtain falls.

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It’s a shame that we miss out on what is probably the big “action sequence” of the movie, but there is enough here to see what Micheaux was doing with the story. Here, the KKK is depicted, not as a historical organization defending the Old South against Carpetbaggers and Scalawags, nor as some “Klan revisionists” might have it today, as a populist organization on a moral crusade for Protestant values, but as linked to corruption and dishonesty in its very nature. This depiction might even seem to be a critique of the link between white supremacy and capitalism, but for the fact that Hugh is able to be a successful “oil king” in the final reel, implying that Micheaux and his audience accepted egalitarian ideas about equality in the “American Dream” so long as African Americans were not cheated out of their heritage by dishonest whites and white allies. You’d think at least some would have questioned this – after all, how many Black millionaires could they name? And perhaps some did, but we see no sign of a deeper critique here.

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It’s also interesting that the relationship between Evon and Hugh is dependent on his realizing that she is Black. This is not because Hugh would refuse to date a white woman, but because he fears any white woman would reject him. This parallels Driscoll’s rejection by the white woman when she sees his mother in the flashback at the beginning of the film. Micheaux points out the pain of this rejection twice, but again does not use it as a means to challenge the racial order directly. It’s possible that this kind of criticism (and that suggested above) would have insured censorship that would have prevented the movie from being seen by the audiences he made it for (mostly African Americans living in segregated cities). Possibly by raising the issue, Micheaux made it possible for audiences “in the know” to carry the conversation forward where he wouldn’t have been allowed to go.

At any rate, this movie is one of the stronger surviving examples of “race film” from the era, and is more complete, and more watchable, than many other such examples. Certainly worth a look for those interested in the period.

Director: Oscar Micheaux

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Iris Hall, Walker Thompson, Lawrence Chenault, Louis Dean, Leigh Whipper, E.G. Tatum

Run Time: 58 minutes (surviving)

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

Regeneration (1923)

I’m kicking off 1923 with this fragment from director Richard E. Norman. It serves as a reminder of the fragility of the art of film as a medium – and choices that are made about what is preserved and what is not.

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The opening credits inform us that this is part two of a serial produced by the Norman Film Manufacturing Company of Jacksonville Florida. An opening intertitle appears to assume the audience is up to speed as it informs us that we are seeing “The Eve of Sailing.” The opening shot is of a group of African American sailors (one in a chef’s uniform) working on the deck of a small craft. A man in an officer’s uniform talks to a young woman; she is concerned that the crew all look like “villains,” but he assures her he can control them. We get a shot of the one-legged cook singing a song about evading work, strumming on his crutch like it is a banjo. The officer chides him and orders fried chicken for dinner. The footage starts to break up pretty badly at this point, and much of the action can only be concluded by reading intertitles, which linger on the screen even as the nitrate damage dances around them. It appears that as they get far out to sea, the crew rebels and tries to force the officer and his girlfriend to surrender a treasure chart they have in their possession and which is presumably the motivator for the voyage. The cook, despite the rough treatment he received earlier, appears to side with them and work behind the scenes to help them to escape. He seems to sow seeds of discontent among the mutineers, who fall out and accuse one another of stealing the chart. The cook is menaced and surrenders the chart. The episode ends with a promise that the story will continue in part 3.

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Like many films from the silent era, this movie is essentially “lost,” but we are fortunate to have enough of it to know that it once existed. Studies show that a vast number of films from the silent era have been lost or destroyed over the decades. One reason we know so little now about African American film history is because the “race pictures” that were made in the silent era were not seen as culturally significant; some came from studios that went bankrupt and lost control over their collections, others were distributed with limited prints to begin with, and few film collectors have made them a priority. As with so many aspects of our culture, the most vulnerable groups lose out in history because they don’t have the power to prevent their erasure from history.

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Thankfully, however, we do have both this clip (thanks to the Library of Congress and Kino Lorber’s “Pioneers of African-American Cinema”). We also have a good deal of historical background about this movie, thanks to The Norman Studios Silent Movie Museum website. I won’t repeat everything you can read there, but they nicely document director Richard E. Norman’s showmanship and business acumen in working with distributors and local censors to get his movie seen. What we can see of the film reminds me of other adventure movies of the time, such as “Terror Island” with Harry Houdini. While the production values, marketing, etc may have been good, it’s somewhat disappointing to see the cook portrayed as a standard minstrel-show lazy Black man, though his apparent redemption as the one crew member not standing with the mutineers might help make up for that, if only we could see it more clearly.

Director: Richard E. Norman

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Stella Mayo

Run Time: 11 Min (existing)

You can watch it for free: here.

Phantom (1922)

For the last movie I review on this site in 2022, I decided to go with an example of German Expressionism in a non-supernatural-horror setting, created by Expressionist master Friedrich Murnau. It also turned out to be an excellent opportunity to look at some of what was going on in the world about one century ago and how it affected film making.

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“Phantom” begins by showing us the author, Gerhart Hauptmann, carrying a book on a rustic road and looking into the camera. Hauptmann was one of the foremost champions of “Naturalism” – a pre-Expressionist literary and theatrical movement that favored realistic dialogue and embraced scientific theory and social commentary. He’d been writing since the 19th Century, and appears here as an elder, but still fit, scholarly type with receding hairline and tweed jacket. The credits resume after this brief interlude and the film proper gets going again.

Phantom

Read the rest of this entry »

Georgetown Loop, Colorado

One of many “actualities” from the beginning of the twentieth century that offered to show America to Americans and the world, this movie reflects a rare opportunity to see the West in the movies before fantasy took over. Much longer than movies of only a few years ago, it remains simple in terms of technique and set up.

Georgetown Loop

The camera rushes along a mountain rail line, seeming to soar over forests and rivers, following the track across high bridges and below towering peaks. After a short distance, the train itself comes into view as it proceeds around a bend in the track. We can see the caboose, suggesting that the platform the camera is mounted upon is attached by a cable perhaps ten feet or more long, allowing a complete view of the train under certain circumstances. Seemingly all of the passengers in the rear cars are waving white handkerchiefs out the windows on the left side of the train, waving, as it were, at the audience. A conductor stands on the back of the final car and is especially vigorous and visible in his waving. Even when the passengers seem to tire of it, or when he has to lean dangerously far off the side to be seen, he keeps waving. At one point, the train goes underneath a trestle bridge while another train passes above, but the camera remains focused on the wavers. The terrain becomes rocky, the train barely missing boulders that have been blasted out to make way for the track, and the conductor is now hanging off the side in what seems a decidedly perilous manner as we go by a rail worker standing by the side of the tracks. Now a mountain village becomes visible, as the camera turns to pay more attention to the surroundings than the train. Houses loom up and we roll past warehouses and other commercial buildings. A church spire is visible in the distance. Still, whenever the train turns, we see the passengers endlessly waving, right up to the end of the film.

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It’s interesting that someone thought seeing Coloradans wave would be more interesting than just looking out at a vista of Colorado. This may have been done to add “human interest,” or it may have been calculated to give the audience something more to focus on than just the scenery, which is all you usually get in a “panorama” film like this. It’s especially surprising to a modern audience when we glimpse the second train on the bridge above, only to lose sight of it and stay focused on the wavers. I suspect this is because the tripods used at the time didn’t allow for enough “tilt” to keep it in view as the train went underneath. The conductor seems to have been especially dedicated to the waving principle, we can sometimes see him glance over his shoulder to make sure he’s not the only one waving. His uniform is distinctive and similar to what would be seen in later years; we also see a woman in a heavy, non-revealing outfit with a large hat, pretty much the style in 1903.

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown. Some Internet sources claim Billy Bitzer, but this is not confirmed in his autobiography or any reliable source I can find.

Run Time: 3 Min

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

Blood and Sand (1922)

Happy Silent Movie Day, everyone. Well, this post was originally going to be put up on September 29, “Silent Movie Day,” as part of the blogathon hosted by Silentology. As it happens, the 29th was also “silent moving day” for me – I relocated 250 miles north. For that reason, this post wound up getting delayed until now. Anyway, around here every day is silent movie day!

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Rudolph Valentino remains a phenomenon, almost 100 years after his death. He wasn’t the first male film celebrity, but he is one of the first to have spawned a “cult” of fascination that seems to transcend time and space. Some people just fall completely in love with him, his face, his acting, the very idea of Valentino makes some go weak in the knees. This isn’t his “big breakout” movie (that honor belongs to “The Sheik”), but it’s a solid example of the kind of romantic role he was famous for, and very good at. Being set in Spain, it also reinforces the concept of Valentino as a “Latin Lover.” Let’s dive in and see what it holds!

Blood and Sand Read the rest of this entry »

Nosferatu (1922)

It looks like this year I may only have time to present a single entry to my “History of Horror” for October, but that one is a doozy! Profoundly influential, in its day controversial, and still significant, we will take a look at Friedrich W. Murnau’s vampire film, which could even qualify as the first indisputable horror film this project has discovered.

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The first intertitle to this movie tells you that something a bit unusual is at work, in that it is written in the first-person, as if the story is being told to us by an individual author. Some English prints attribute this to a historian named “Johann Cavallius,” but more authentic prints put it under the header “an Account of the Great Death in Wisborg,” sans author’s name (note that the same prints that give this name tend to follow conventions of Stoker’s novel in naming characters – Hutter is “Jonathan Harker,” etc. I will stick to the names from the Murnau script for this review). Whoever our author is, he or she has a propensity for dramatic statements about “deathbirds” or chilled blood, though what is introduced is homey enough as we see young Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) with his wife Ellen (Greta Schröder), living a comfortably bourgeois life with a garden in this fictional town. Hutter, however, works for an unscrupulous real estate agent named Knock (Alexander Granach), who has decided to sell the grim-looking empty house across from Hutter to a mysterious Count Orlok who comes “from the land of phantoms and thieves.” He assigns Hutter to travel there to meet Orlok and close the deal.

Nosferatu1 Read the rest of this entry »

Do-Re-Mi-Boom! (1915)

Chester Conklin plays a typical Keystone tramp in this Mack Sennett comedy from the year after Charlie Chaplin left the studio. He brings none of the sympathy Chaplin did (although Chaplin’s Keystone roles were his least sympathetic as well), and the movie hinges on increasingly madcap action for laughs.

Do Re Mi Boom

The movie begins with Conklin listening to the piano playing of Vivian Edwards, standing outside her window, dubiously trespassing on her property and peeping in at her. He is so moved by her playing that he starts to sing along, which causes her to come and speak with him, apparently unconcerned about his creepy behavior and odd appearance. Her music teacher (Charles Arling) now arrives and a rivalry is established. Arling quite reasonably takes offense at Conklin’s behavior, and drives him away with threats. He then remonstrates with Vivian not to encourage unhoused individuals to hang about her window making moony eyes at her, but soon engages in a bit of his own sexual harassment toward his pupil. Conklin wanders into the park, and sees an organ-grinder (Harry Booker) with his monkey attracting a crowd. This gives him the good idea to steal the organ and monkey for himself. The organ grinder is understandably upset by this, and being a swarthy foreigner in a Keystone film, naturally avails himself of an anarchist bomb. Conklin attempts to serenade his ostensible sweetie outside her window with the organ, which results in Arling coming out and giving him what for. Arling wins the fight and chucks Conklin into a trash can, where the foreigner tosses his bomb. Luckily, it has quite a long fuse and Conklin is able to put it out in time.

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Now armed with the bomb himself, Conklin gets a new idea and follows the music teacher back to his hotel. Despite behaving an a very conspicuous manner and being asked to leave by the desk clerk, he is able to sneak up to Arling’s room and gain entry while he is out. He has the clever idea to hide the bomb inside his piano, rigged to ignite when certain notes are played. However, before he can effect an escape, Arling returns with Vivian and they sit down to another lesson. Conklin, trapped behind the piano, can do nothing but gesture in a panic. Now the monkey climbs up to the window, perhaps seeking Conklin who was his last owner. He jumps on the piano and it starts to smoke, now Conklin jumps out and tells them a bomb is inside. Together, they all push the piano out the window, but Conklin falls out with it and soon he and the monkey are barreling down the street on top of a runaway piano while the fuse grows shorter and shorter. The organ grinder sees them and gives chase, perhaps demanding the return of his monkey (or his bomb), while Arling and Vivian watch from the window. The bomb explodes, apparently resolving the issue and the survivors kiss.

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Watching something like this today, I can sympathize with critics of the day who called the movies “vulgar.” That’s not the word I would choose, but this is certainly pretty low-brow and low in production value. There’s little effort at characterization or story, just escalating zaniness and social cliché. There’s really no one to identify with here, except maybe the monkey – the two rivals are equally violent and inappropriate, one just happens to be in poorer clothing than the other, the foreigner is the worst kind of stereotype, and the woman is completely objectified and apparently has no will of her own. Despite a lack of credits, I’ve gone ahead and named her as Vivian Edwards based on a picture from “The Silent Era,” which is usually more reliable than the imdb, which credits her as “Girl in Hotel Lobby.” She was a busy comedienne of the day, and had worked with Chaplin in his time at Keystone, including on “His Prehistoric Past” and “The Masquerader.”

Director: Walter Wright

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Chester Conklin, Vivian Edwards, Charles Arling, Harry Booker, Fred Fishback, Charles Lakin, William Sheer

Run Time: 11 Min, 40 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

National Silent Movie Day Announcement Post

Hello readers. You’ve probably noticed that the Century Film Project has been a bit sparse in new posts this year. Fair warning: it’s probably about to get worse because I’m relocating and re-starting my career in the coming weeks.

But, meanwhile, there is good news!

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On September 29, I plan to participate in the Silent Movie Day Blogathon, hosted by Silentology and In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. I shall be reviewing “Blood and Sand,” directed by Fred Niblo and starring Rudolph Valentino and Nita Naldi. See you then!

The Mystical Flame (1903)

This is a classic example of Georges Méliès filming one of his stage magic acts with a few trick photography effects and calling it a film. Coming the year after “A Trip to the Moon” and other serious efforts like “Robinson Crusoe” it may seem a bit disappointing, but surely this is where the steady income came from for Star Films.

Mystical Flame

Méliès steps onto a stage, with one of his familiar backdrops and picks up a skull that is sitting on a chair, after playing with the jaw for a moment, he tosses it into the air and it becomes a handkerchief. He does various tricks with the handkerchief, turning it into a larger napkin and then a large sheet, from which he summons forth a liveried servant. The servant helps him to bring a large screen onto the stage, and then a stool-like object, which the Star Films catalog describes as a “low table.” He sets fire to the top of the table, and a flame flares up briefly before lowering to reveal the figure of a woman. The woman steps down from the table and Méliès leads her about the stage, then puts her back atop the table. He leaves the stage and the servant professes his love for the woman, who slowly fades away. Méliès returns and chases the servant off, perhaps blaming him for her disappearance, then he tumbles over the chair and disappears himself. The servant rushes to the chair to see where his master has gone, but Méliès re-manifests on the stool/table and grabs him from behind, causing him to disappear in a puff of smoke when he touches the table. He does the same with the chair and finishes the act.

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The flame is only very briefly on stage; it might make as much sense to call this movie “The Mystical Handkerchief” or even “The Skull.” The existing print isn’t that great and I’m sure this is one of those movies that would look better in the original hand-painted color. Still, it gives us a sense of the whimsy and fun that Méliès brought even to simple projects during the peak of his productivity. When in doubt, he could always make someone disappear! The black screen, which serves no obvious purpose, was probably brought in because it was easier to do in-camera effects in front of a neutral black background. The Star Films Catalog refers to the character Méliès plays as a “juggler” though he never juggles anything, and it says he appears “from under the table” although he just fades into existence on top of it.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 2 Min

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

This is the free demo result. You can also download a complete website from archive.org.