Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Misfortune Never Comes Alone (1903)

This simple short by Georges Méliès eschews trick photography and emphasizes slapstick humor, to the point of degenerating into a riot by the end. As with “The Colonel’s Shower Bath,” the butt of the humor is the military, especially the officer class.

Misfortune Never Comes Alone

The movie takes place on a set designed to look like an urban European street corner. A sign behind a character dressed in uniform reads “Corps de Garde,” indicating that the building is a barracks. The soldier character marches back and forth while a man has his shoes shined by another. The civilians leave and the soldier stretches out to rest. Propping himself on his rifle, he begins to snooze. A glazier walks by with glass frames balanced on his back and then a man pulls a hose across the set, apparently preparing to spray the sidewalk. Another man with a ladder props it up over the soldier and climbs up to a high gas lamp with a rag. A man dressed a bit like a modern jester runs up and looks impish as he assesses the scene of the ladder, the hose, and the sleeping soldier. He gently removes the man’s rifle and replaces it with the hose. Then he sneaks offscreen until an officer walks by. When the officer upbraids the guard for sleeping, he turns on the hose, which sprays the man working over his head. The officer winds up getting the lamp cage dropped on his head and soon the worker is tussling with the soldier, grabbing his rifle and smashing in one of the windows. When the occupants protest, the worker picks up the still-spraying hose and douses them in water. Soon police officers run up to gain control of the situation, but the result is more mayhem and water spraying everywhere. The soldier ducks into the barracks and the worker climbs up to the second floor and enters via a window. The police attempt to follow, but the worker and the prankster drag out an advertising column and topple it, blocking the entrance to the barracks. All of the characters crowd on stage and wave their arms about in distress, the social order completely upended.

Misfortune Never Comes Alone1

Méliès prefigures Mack Sennett by almost a decade here with physical humor that targets soldiers and police, and reduces a city street to complete anarchy in the name of a few chuckles. The use of the hose may have been the most challenging aspect of the production – the sets are pretty obviously painted cardboard with flimsy wood frames and the actors have to avoid pointing it at walls for fear the water will cut right through them. Even so, the upper window frame does get wet and an apparently “stone wall” sags as the worker climbs in to the upper story. A quick edit gave Méliès a chance to repair the damage before things went too far, but otherwise this movie is made in single takes, as is typical of his work. Sharp-eyed viewer will notice that several of the ads on the column are for Méliès films and the Theatre Houdin -an early form of product placement. Another area in which Méliès was an innovator, one can also see ads for Pleyel Pianos and Menier Chocolate who presumably paid for the advertising.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès, unknown.

Run Time: 3 Min

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

When the Clouds Roll By (1919)

This comedy feature from Douglas Fairbanks lampoons superstition and psychiatry in equal measure, also dealing (as did “Flirting with Fate”) with the dark topic of suicide in a comedic fashion. As always, Doug gets through the shaky premise with athletics, optimism, and “pep.”

When_the_Clouds_Roll_by

Doug plays “Daniel Boone Brown,” a poor sap who has been chosen by Dr. Metz (Herbert Grimwood), an unscrupulous scientist, as the subject of an experiment to see whether a human being can be killed by his mind alone. For months he has been encouraging all doubts and fears in him, and now he announces his experiment to an academic conference, urging his listeners to keep it a secret. We now see poor Doug, who is being served an onion, a lobster, Welsh rarebit, and a slice of mince pie at midnight to give him indigestion and bad dreams by his servant, who is in on the scheme. As he eats each of these ill-advised foods, we see a depiction of his stomach, with the foods dancing about inside. Of course, he has a terrible night and wakes up late for work. In his dreams he is pursued by a ghostly man with huge forearms, he passes through a room full of women in his nightclothes, and he runs around the walls of a room, as Fred Astaire would do in “Royal Wedding” many years later.

When the Clouds Roll By

Read the rest of this entry »

Broncho Billy’s Gratefulness (1913)

One of many Westerns made by Gibert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson during the Nickelodeon Era, this short shows him once again living by a personal code that is higher than any law.

Broncho Billys Gratefulness

As the movie begins, there is a series of edited shots of a Western family in a peaceful domestic setting and Broncho Billy, evidently suffering distress as he walks down the street and knocks on the door. The man (Brinsley Shaw) finds him at the doorstep and the wife (Evelyn Selbie) puts him in bed and gives him blankets. Brinsley goes to find a doctor (Victor Potel) and they nurse him back to health. Soon, he is back at the saloon with his compadres. When Brinsley goes off, leaving his wife alone, another man (Fred Church), dressed as a “city slicker” comes over and talks to her. She spurns him, but he hopes that his money will persuade her to change her attitude. She continues to resist, and he forces a kiss upon her. When she tells her husband, he rides out and finds the man, shooting him as he mounts his horse.

Broncho Billys Gratefulness1

The man is alive, however, with just a wound to the shoulder and soon is telling the sheriff (Harry Todd) who shot him. The sheriff soon arrives with a posse and arrests the husband, tearing him from the arms of his wife. The wife rushes to find Billy, who, unselfishly if foolishly, rides to the rescue and holds up the posse, freeing the husband to ride off. He joins the wife and the two ride away together into Mexico. Billy holds the posse in place at gunpoint, lighting up a cigarette and sharing it with the men. An intertitle tells us “Time has passed” and we see Billy approach the sheriff at his office and offer him his gun. The sheriff waves it off and the two start a conversation, although the outcome remains a bit unclear.

Broncho Billys Gratefulness2

This one feels a bit rushed, especially at the end. It’s important to realize that Essanay and Anderson were putting out dozens of these movies each year (something on the order of 300 in a six-year period), and the short format didn’t leave time for careful plot development in the best of cases. It’s possible that there’s missing footage or an intertitle that would explain the ending a bit better, but it’s also possible that an audience, knowing that the man Brinsley shot was a scalawag, would accept the simple logic that Billy should not be punished for his actions, which in the end harmed no one. Anderson’s acting at the beginning when he is sick is extremely exaggerated, the sort that makes sure no one can miss his distress, even without dialogue or intertitles to explain it. Similarly, Fred Church and Evelyn Selbie take their scene to rather melodramatic heights, considering that all that is at stake is a kiss. Brinsley is more stoic about his response, which may be better acting or it may be to show the unemotional way in which a Western male goes about “taking care of business” under the circumstances. The most exciting thing about the movie is the regular use of intercutting, right from the first moment, to establish simultaneous action and maintain suspense. For 1913, this is pretty standard, however.

Director: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson, Brinsley Shaw, Evelyn Selbie, Fred Church, Harry Todd, Victor Potel

Run Time: 14 Min, 20 secs

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

Reaching for the Moon (1917)

Douglas Fairbanks dips a toe into swashbuckling and costume drama in this early farce, but the overall message doesn’t really seem to agree with his real-life attitudes. What kind of fun does he have in store for us here?

Reaching_for_the_Moon_(1917)

The movie begins with a metaphorical image of Doug, on top of a tall ladder, reaching for an illuminated crescent moon, clearly out of reach. Assuming that there are no tricks here, his precarious balance on the top step may be one of the most dangerous stunts of the movie. We learn from intertitles that his character has the outlandish name of Alexis Caesar Napoleon Brown, but I’ll probably keep calling him “Doug” because that’s how I always think of him, whatever role he plays. He believes in a system of wish-fulfillment based on visualization, and he aspires to rub shoulders with nobility and have the ears of Kings. In reality, however, he is a minor clerk at a firm that makes buttons. Apparently his mother was a refugee from the kingdom of Vulgaria, and he suspects that he may be part of the royal lineage. He goes to see his girl (Eileen Percy), and enthuses at her about how his visualizations will make their dreams come true, though she advises him to start small and work his way up to the bigger dreams. It is fairly clear that her dream is simply to be with Doug, and that she understands the book he recommends to her better than he does.

Reaching for the Moon1

Doug focuses his efforts on a meeting with the Prince of Contraria, who is conveniently in town at the time. He manages to insinuate himself into a table at a posh restaurant close to the Prince, but is unable to afford any of the high-priced items on the menu. His constant staring and attempts to get himself noticed make the Prince’s companions suspect he may be a spy. Meanwhile, they ignore the real spies at a further table. He continues to daydream and see if he can find a way to meet the Prince, but without success. Soon, his distraction leads to his losing his job, since he doesn’t put enough time into his regular duties any more. He goes home and throws himself on his bed in despair.

Reaching for the Moon2

Shortly after, one of the dignitaries from Contraria shows up at his door, pursued by the spies. He knocks and Doug wakes up to let him in. The man demands to know his name and appears astounded when he hears it and that his mother was Vulgarian. The man compares a photo in his pocket to the picture of Doug’s mother and states that he is the only living heir to the throne of Vulgaria. He promises to take Doug to his kingdom, despite the efforts of assassins employed by Black Boris (Frank Campeau) to stop him. Doug momentarily thinks about his girl, but decides he can catch up with her later, after he has been installed. The assassins see him and follow the car to the dock, where Doug and his entourage board a vessel to Vulgaria. Doug looks forward to the good life, rich food, and sea air, but it turns out he has to stay in hiding from the assassins and can only eat tinned food to avoid being poisoned. He can’t even talk, because the assassins have bugged his stateroom, and to remove the bug would alert them that they have been detected.

Reaching for the Moon3

In Vulgaria, things only get worse, as his parade is interrupted by several assassination attempts. It is here that Doug is finally able to put his physical skills to use, as he leaps from horses and canal boats, climbs sheer walls and runs along rooftops while dodging bullets. He also fights some assassins hand to hand, putting in a good show for himself. Finally, he drops from a ceiling trapdoor into the midst of his cabinet, who are relieved to find him alive. He learns that he is betrothed to the Princess Valentina, and aging dowager from Contraria. But he agrees to remain for the good of his people, and eventually Black Boris challenges him to a duel. In this movie, Doug seems to be untrained in swordsmanship, and despite a few good moves, he is quickly forced to back down. Soon, he is sent flying down a steep precipice. It becomes steeper and steeper until Alexis falls out of his bed at home, discovering that the whole sequence has been a dream.

Reaching for the Moon4

Doug rushes over to his girl, only to see her with another man. It turns out that the man is a realtor, who is selling her a small suburban home in New Jersey, which she hopes to share with Doug – her dream come true. He gets his job back by promising to apply himself diligently to the job and not aspire for unrealistic things. We see Doug and the girl happy at home with a small child.

Reaching for the Moon

The moral to this story appears to be that one should learn to be happy with one’s lot in life, which is about the most un-Fairbanksian idea I can think of. If he felt that way, he should have stayed in Denver, stayed with his first wife and not married Mary Pickford, and never become one of the world’s first movie star personalities. Since that’s not what he did (indeed, it’s almost impossible to imagine), this movie comes off like him telling his fans, “Do as I say, not as I do.” But maybe the bigger disappointment is the use of the “it was all a dream” ending, which was already a cliché in literature and theater long before the movies used it as a cop out. The relatively short run time of features at this time may have precluded a truly clever resolution to the situation, but it seems like Doug could have learned what was really important in his life (the love of the girl, in this instance), without having to negate the most interesting part of the story. On a level of wish-fulfillment, it’s also dissatisfying not to see Doug beat the villain, when we know that he was perfectly capable of putting on a good show as a fencer.

Reaching for the Moon5

Whatever we may say about the narrative, however, this movie is pretty well in line with the better-quality work Fairbanks was putting out in 1917. Although Wikipedia calls it an “adventure film,” it is really a light comedy whose adventure-spoofing sequences give Doug ample opportunity to show off his athleticism. The camerawork and editing are of very high quality for the time, but nothing really exciting of innovative is attempted. Fairbanks didn’t really re-invent himself as an action star until the 1920s, but certainly movies like this and “A Modern Musketeer” gave him a chance to sample what that would be like and get in some early practice. The movie is set in New York and “Vulgaria,” though imdb claims it was shot in Venice, California. The exteriors are convincing, although it is certainly true that we don’t see any recognizable New York locations. The scene at the canal really does mimic the other Venice pretty convincingly, and I wonder if this is the only sequence that was actually shot in Venice, with the more urban landscapes taken from deeper in Los Angeles.

Reaching for the Moon6

For fans of Fairbanks, this movie is a fine example of his early work, but the ending is bound to be a downer.

Director: John Emerson

Camera: Victor Fleming, Sam Landers

Starring: Douglas Fairbanks, Eileen Percy, Frank Campeau, Eugene Ormonde, Bull Montana, Charles Stevens, Erich von Strohheim

Run Time: 1 Hr, 9 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

New York, Brooklyn Bridge (1896)

Having taken the world by storm with their projected motion pictures in 1895, the Lumière brothers quickly dispatched cameras to far points of the world, eager to get images that would be exotic or exciting for audiences at home and abroad. This one comes from New York City, and is a rather idiosyncratic view of a still-famous structure.

New York, Brooklyn Bridge1

The camera is set up on train tracks, facing a stationary engine and a small building. A train approaches, turning to exit screen left. As it does so, it blocks the one recognizable arch from the bridge in the distance. Soon other trains cross our view, one quite close to the camera is being driven “backward,” with the engine behind the other cars. These appear to be commuter trains, with people sitting in the coaches. A workman on a ladder is on the other side of the tracks, and at times he seems to look at the camera. It is impossible to tell which side of the East River this image was taken from, but it appears to be at the point where the tracks are turning toward the bridge, not actually on the bridge itself.

New York, Brooklyn Bridge

Bridge? What bridge?

Today, we don’t think of the Brooklyn Bridge being for trains. The upper level is largely for pedestrian and bicycle traffic, and below that is roadway for cars. Even buses and trucks don’t cross the bridge anymore, it isn’t used for public transit, just personal transportation. This was not always the case, however, as we see here. It’s surprising that the photographer felt that this view was the best way to show the bridge, since the trains block its most recognizable features for much of the run time. There isn’t a lot to distinguish this from “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat” or dozens of similar train movies from the nineteenth century, but presumably audience demand was high for this type of film, and getting the famous bridge was a secondary concern.

Director: Alexandre Promio

Camera: Alexandre Promio

Run Time: 50 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

A Bird’s a Bird (1915)

Just in time for the holidays comes this Keystone comedy about two husbands trying to provide a turkey for their wives’ tables. Lacking in big names, this one gives a good example of the more “pedestrian” comic output of the studio.

Chester Conklin plays Mr. Walrus, who we meet at a raffle, where he is buying up tickets in hopes of winning the grand prize – a turkey to take home for dinner. Despite his multiple tickets, when the wheel is spun he is not the winner. Now Mr. Spegle (Harry D. Ward dressed to look sort of like Ford Sterling) comes along and buys one ticket, then tricks the “foreigner” (William Hauber) who legitimately won into giving him his ticket and he takes home the bird. Walrus goes home to wife Minta Durfee and explains that he wasn’t able to get a turkey, and she expresses anxiety as her parents are coming for dinner and expect meat. A close up on a parrot in a cage gives Walrus an idea and he makes an incompetent effort to catch it, but is caught in the act by Minta. He then wonders how cat meat would taste as he sits by the family pet. This time Minta takes his knife away. Luckily, however, the Spegles are just next door and Mr. Spegle puts the turkey in the window to cool, having just finished roasting it. Now the foreigner walks up and plants a bomb in the turkey. Walrus takes the rather more American-materialist form of revenge by taking the turkey. He presents it to Minta just as she is despairing of having a decent dinner for her parents. She is suspicious at first and checks to make sure the parrot is still alive, but overjoyed once she is convinced it’s a real turkey. She instructs him to set the table, and he does a quick pratfall where he tries to lean on one of the extended “arms” after opening it out and knocks all of their good china on the floor. He also “presses” his suit by laying it out on a window seat and sitting on it. Minta meets her parents at the door and invites the neighbors, Mr. & Mrs. Spegle over to meet them. Of course, they are asked to stay for dinner, and Mr. Spegle recognizes the bird. Just as he is announcing Walrus’s crime, the foreigner comes up to watch the results of his handywork, but a fight breaks out among the family and the bird gets tossed out the window, the explosion throws the foreigner far into the air and he lands on Minta’s dad, crashing through the ceiling. The final minutes of the film are just the foreigner, Walrus , and Spegle locked in silly combat and comeuppance.

I think this movie would have benefitted from the presence of a Fatty Arbuckle, Mable Normand, or even a (real) Ford Sterling. None of the players seems to be able to carry it as is. We don’t expect any kind of subtlety in a Keystone plot, but this one is very weak sauce indeed. As grim as the section is in which Conklin seems to be contemplating serving a household pet to his in-laws, this is the part with the greatest comedic potential, but it is left to sit – possibly because this isn’t a cartoon and chasing live animals around wasn’t going to be feasible in single takes (though Normand had handled the concept admirably in “A Little Hero”). The other piece of this movie is the various dinner-table arguments that take place while the bomb ticks away, reminding me of Hitchcock’s famous “bomb theory” of suspense, which should also translate to comedy: things are funnier if you know that all the tomfoolery is just a distraction from a ticking bomb, or so you might think. Here, it doesn’t seem to work, maybe because the audience doesn’t really trust the narrative to stick to any logical rhythm – the bomb’s going to go off when it feels like it, not when it is supposed to, so we lose that sense of urgency. At any rate, this movie isn’t a complete washout, but it’s not among the best works in Keystone’s canon.

Director: Unknown (possibly Walter Wright)

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Chester Conklin, Minta Durfee, Harry Ward, Willaim Hauber, Alice Davenport, Fred Hibbard

Run Time: 13 Min

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

 

Camille (1921)

The classic romantic story of a sex worker with a heart of gold is remade in modern times, starring now-huge-names Rudolph Valentino and Alla Nazimova. The look is a decided break with traditions established in the teens, and heralds the coming of the “roaring twenties” in all their glory.

Camille-newspapaerad1922

The movie begins with a wide shot of a grand staircase, filled with people in evening clothes, ostensibly in Paris in the winter (there are no exteriors in this part of the movie, so it could be anywhere/when). We close in on Armand (Valentino) and his pal Gaston (Rex Cherryman), who play law students. Gaston is the elder, more jaded of the pair, while Armand seems to be thrilled by high society. When Camille (Nazimova) emerges, with a coterie of gentlemen trailing after her, Armand is immediately smitten, and asks Gaston about her. She is known as “the Lady with the Camellias” and is in the process of throwing over her current escort for a more high-ranking member of the aristocracy. Gaston introduces her, and she seems to lose interest in her high-stakes quarry for a moment when she sees how handsome Armand is. She lets it be known that there will be an after-party at her place and Gaston agrees to take his aunt and Armand along for the ride.

Camille Read the rest of this entry »

The Haunted Castle (1921)

Originally released with the more prosaic title “Schloss Vogelöd” (“Castle Vogelöd”), this early work by F.W. Murnau skirts the edges of horror and Expressionism, without fully committing to either. Murnau does show his talent for psychological drama here, as well as atmosphere and narrative structure.

The movie begins by showing us a large manor, drenched in rain. We learn from intertitles that this is the home of Lord von Vogelschrey (Arnold Korff) and that the traditional hunting season has been rained out for several days. We move to the interior of the castle and see the host and his bored guests, who are playing cards, smoking, reading newspapers and the like. A servant enters the room and announces Count Oetsch (Lothar Mehnert), which seems to disconcert everyone. Count Oetsch enters and Vogelschrey takes him aside to another room. The guests outside gossip and we learn that the count got his title a few years ago on the death of his brother by shooting, and that he is suspected of the crime. This rumor gets nourished by a retired Judge of the District Court. Vogelscrhey informs Oetsch that his brother’s widow will soon be here, implying that he (Oetsch) should leave, but Oetsch acts nonchalant and makes it clear he intends to stay.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Phantom Carriage (1921)

This spooky film from Sweden adds another piece to my “history of horror” that I wasn’t able to get to in the month of October this year. Never mind, November is still a good creepy month, and this movie transcends the horror genre by dealing with issues of morality and personal responsibility, even as it depicts a skeletal horse pulling a transparent buggy.

Phantom Carriage1

As the film opens, a young woman (Astrid Holm) is sick in bed, those around her call her “Sister Edit,” and expect her soon to die. We learn that she is with the Salvation Army, that it is New Year’s Eve, and that she has only one wish: to speak with someone named David Holm. His name seems to scandalize her caretakers, but they cannot ignore a dying request, and a search for David is mounted. When we find him (played by director Victor Sjöstrom), he is in a graveyard, enjoying a final toast with other down-and-outs. He tells a story that appears in flashbacks.

Phantom Carriage4

Read the rest of this entry »

Artheme Swallows His Clarinet (1912)

This very French farce comes from a time when national cinematic styles were still being determined and when France’s film product was just starting to be challenged economically by the output of the United States. This movie may have been seen around the world at the time, but it was nearly lost at the time of its restoration, with only two known prints to work from.

Artheme Swallows His Clarinet

Our lead character is a short man in a hat and baggy jacket. He is seen strolling along a path in a park, playing his clarinet as he walks. A policeman comes up to him and interrupts, showing us with gestures as he asks Artheme to stop playing. Artheme agrees and walks off. The next scene shows him as he walks up to a streetcar. A crowd is clamoring to get on board, and he begins to play again. The film speeds up and everyone is able to board quickly with the help of his music. He tips his hat to the streetcar as it pulls away. Now he comes to a group of workmen, who are pulling a heavy cabinet on a rope up the side of the building. When he starts to play, they forget their labors and start to dance, but unfortunately, Artheme was standing beneath the cabinet and when they let go the rope it crashes down on him! When they recover and pull him out from under, we see that his clarinet was pushed back into his mouth and it now penetrates his head – the mouthpiece jutting out from the back and the horn sticking out of his mouth. He seems not to be in much pain, however, and rather than horror, the workmen respond with mirth at his plight.

Artheme Swallows His Clarinet1

Artheme leaves and walks on, looking for someone to help him pull it out again. He first finds a policeman, but despite his best efforts, the instrument will not budge. He approaches another man in the park, who recruits more help to get more force on the clarinet, and soon there is a line of people tugging on a rope attached to it. When they slip and lose their grip, however, the whole crowd falls backward into a lake. Artheme sits on a bench at the seashore and a man with a top hat and funny beard walks up, reading from a musical score. He comes behind Artheme and plays the clarinet through his head, making Artheme hold up the music for him. Annoyed at being reduced to a music stand, Artheme hits him and pushes him away. He now comes to a blacksmith’s shop, where men are working with hammers at an anvil. He pleads with them to help him and places his head upon the anvil. A man with a large hammer strikes the mouthpiece until the instrument has been forced out of his mouth. He stands up again, apparently no worse for the experience (and happily without a big hole in the back of his head). Nevertheless, they pick him up and dunk his head into a bucket of water several times, giving us one final laugh as the film ends.

Artheme Swallows His Clarinet2

It’s easy to imagine the early Surrealists seeing this movie in youth or even childhood and loving it. It has all of the elements – including violence and bodily disfigurement – that would fascinate them later. The star and director was Ernest Servaès, who did a series of “Artheme” films for the next few years, although I believe the company he worked for, Eclipse, folded during the First World War and there isn’t much trace of him after that. According to imdb, he lived long enough to make two movies named “Mirelle,” one in 1922 and one in 1934, with that last version being the only feature length film of his career. He has a delightful personality as a French comedian, although he lacks the physicality of a Keaton or a Chaplin and probably would never have made a big hit in the USA. The effect of the clarinet is uneven, Ernest has to keep his head ducked low in order for it to look straight, and much of the time it is obvious that it is constructed of two separate pieces attached to the back of his head and stuck in his mouth. This movie has a light touch that is appealing today. I liked the images of the French coast (the water is rough and full of large, fast-moving waves) and the location shots on the streets, which give a definite sense of place; most of the park looks just like the parks we’ve seen in Keystone comedies, which is itself interesting – I guess even a hundred years ago, a park was a park.

Director: Ernest Servaès

Camera: Émile Pierre

Starring: Ernest Servaès

Run Time: 4 min, 12 secs

You can watch it for free: here.