Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

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).

The Outlaw and His Wife (1918)

Despite the title, this is no Western starring William S. Hart, rather this Swedish feature was directed by Victor Sjöström, so far the only Swedish director to be covered in this blog. Like the others, which include “Ingeborg Holm” and “A Man There Was,” this film has a brooding power that draws on Scandinavian narrative style and the vast open spaces of the countryside.

As the opening intertitle informs us, the movie is set in a community in 18th Century Iceland, although it was filmed at home due to the difficulty of travel during the First World War. Sjöström plays Kári, a man who wanders into an established village looking for work. Although the first locals he meets are suspicious, they nevertheless direct him to the farm of Halla (Edith Erastoff), a recently-widowed woman who is managing a farm on her own. Kári proves to be a hard worker and likeable, and he is taken in.

Matters develop when the local bailiff (played by Nils Ahren), hears a rumor that  Kári was run out of another town for being a thief. The bailiff is the brother of Halla’s deceased husband, and he has designs on her land, hoping to marry her in order to integrate her farm and his own. Halla, meanwhile, has made it very clear she has no respect for the bailiff, and she seems to be falling for Kári. When the bailiff makes his accusation, Halla challenges him to wrestle Kári and he loses. Nevertheless, Kári confesses to Halla – it is true, he stole in order to feed his family, ran away, and now he will be put to death if caught. He decides to leave civilization, to go and hide out in the mountains, and Halla asks to come with him, abandoning everything she has just to be with him.

Living alone in their hideout shack, far up on the mountainside, the two lovers seem to have an idyllic situation. They are able to catch fish and grow a little food, get clean water from a spring, and they live in love with themselves and with nature. They are joined by Arnes (John Ekman), another laborer from Halla’s farm who has gotten into trouble with the law, and by a baby girl after Halla gives birth. But, a problem is brewing beneath the surface, because Arnes, isolated from the company of other women, is beginning to obsess over Halla. One day, when the two of them are hunting together along a ridge, Kári slips and falls, grabbing on to a branch to avoid plummeting to his doom. Arnes gets a rope and throws it to him, then gets out his knife and, for a moment, begins to saw at the rope, then Kári calls to him and brings him to his senses, and he rescues Kári after all.

Accepting that he can never have Halla, Arnes decides to leave the area. As he is walking away, he sees a patrol of men coming up the mountainside in search of the fugitives. He runs back to warn Kári and Halla, but he is too late and the men arrive at just the same moment and a fight ensues. In fear of capture, Halla throws her child off the cliff into the river below. Arnes and Kári are able to beat off the men after all, but now the couple must endure their grief and guilt at the death of the child. Their internal devastation is mirrored by nature, which now throws a hellish snowstorm at them, and they are trapped in their little shack with no food and limited fuel for the fire. They begin snapping at each other, and even seem to be contemplating murder and cannibalism as they go mad with hunger. When Kári goes for firewood, Halla wanders out of the cabin and freezes in the snow. Kári finds her and holds her until he has died frozen by her side.

Being somewhat familiar with Icelandic mythic history in the form of the Sagas, I can confirm that this movie has most of the narrative elements one would expect from such a source. It is set more recently than the traditional Sagas, but the living culture of oral history there would result in newer stories. Among the aspects that struck me as in line with the mythic cycles of Scandinavia were the wrestling match to decide a point of honor, the harsh punishment for criminals, and the inevitable punishment of people who transgress or try to live outside the support of society.

Meanwhile, the film also has a lot in common with other work by Sjöström, especially visually and in terms of the bleakness and moral stringency of its philosophical outlook. I’ve compared Sjöström with Ingmar Bergman more than once as I discuss his work, and I’ve learned since that Sjöström was one of Bergman’s mentors in film making, so the connection is more definite than I had realized. Folks who find Bergman dull will probably feel about the same way about Sjöström, but it’s fair to say that he deals with somewhat simpler moral issues than Bergman takes on. This movie is more rapidly edited than earlier Sjöström work, and also makes good use of close-ups to build sympathy with its characters. Finally, it’s interesting to note that Erastoff is not a traditional youthful beauty, but a solid middle-aged woman who exudes strength and confidence more than sex appeal. This can hardly be because Sweden was lacking in beautiful women (see: Greta Garbo), and was surely a conscious casting decision. It makes the film feel decidedly more realistic – a Hollywood star just doesn’t look like someone who can survive the privations that Halla takes on.

Director: Victor Sjöström

Camera: Julius Jaenzon

Starring: Victor Sjöström, Edith Erastoff, Nils Ahren, John  Ekman

Run Time: 1 hr, 10 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Whispering Chorus (1918)

This feature by Cecil B. DeMille shows the development of plot and acting as it was taking place in a young Hollywood. Its star, Raymond Hatton, demonstrates that silent movie performance need not be hackneyed or overstated.

The conceit of this film is a simple one – that each person carries around with them a Greek “chorus” of voices that constantly advise on every decision made or action taken. These voices may be those of someone we know – our mother’s voice, for example, might be quite influential – or just represent our idea of “society” or some part of it. Together, these voices make up a “Whispering Chorus” that echoes through our minds with good and bad advice alike, often contradicting one another as they compete for our attention. Hatton plays John Tremble, a low-ranking white collar worker for a large contracting firm. His “chorus” includes Gustav von Seyffertitz and Edna Mae Cooper, and they appear as disembodied heads behind his shoulder through the magic of double-exposure when DeMille wants us to realize that Hatton is under their sway. When he considers knocking off work early, von Seffertitz encourages him with communistic logic about the theft of his time for the profit of the company, but Cooper changes his mind, promising him that his work will ultimately be appreciated.

After finishing his tasks, Tremble goes home, where h lives with his wife Jane (Kathlyn Williams) and mother (Edythe Chapman). They are busy decorating for Christmas, but John is upset because there are bills waiting to be paid, his clothes are worn and threadbare, and his wife wants to spend money on a new dress. After being a bit of a jerk about it, he talks to his mother, who convinces him to spend the last of his money on the new dress, to make up to her. He goes out again, but before making the purchase, he runs into a friend from the office, who invites him to a poker game. At first he refuses, but his whispering chorus convinces him that he can make enough from gambling to buy the dress and a new coat for himself, so he goes along after all. Predictably, he loses all of his money, then stays out late to avoid having to admit his mistake to his family. His whispering chorus convinces him to steal money from the till at work to make up for it, and he falsifies an entry in the ledger. Then an investigation into graft arrives, in the form of George Coggeswell (Elliott Dexter), and Tremble panics, knowing his theft will be detected. He begs off a theater engagement, claiming he needs to go back to the office to lock his desk, but instead he runs out of the state and goes into hiding in an abandoned shed near a river.

One day, a body washes up on shore, and Tremble uses it to fake his own death, leaving a cryptic note about a man called “Edgar Smith” who was supposedly trying to strong-arm him into falsifying the books. Tremble now shaves off his beard with a piece of glass, giving himself a nasty scar in the process, but also altering his appearance enough to throw off any pursuer. Meanwhile, Mrs. Tremble has been comforted by Coggeswell as his investigation now focuses on “Edgar Smith” rather than her blameless husband. She falls in love with him, and he with her, but she is reluctant to re-marry, since Tremble’s mother still insists that her son is alive. John drifts aimlessly through life, taking up dock work despite being rather too small and skinny for hard labor, and he is injured in an accident, giving him a limp that also distinguishes him from his former self. On Chinese New Year, Jane finally relents and agrees to marry Coggeswell, now  a successful politician and candidate for the governorship, while at the same time John dallies with a prostitute in Shanghai.

Eventually, John goes back to see his mother, finding her alone and dying. This leads to his being caught and accused of being “Edgar Smith.” When the trial comes, his own wife does not recognize him, and he fails to put up a good defense, believing that it is impossible for a man to be convicted of killing himself. He is, however, and now the “good” side of his Whispering Chorus comes to his aid. He decides that rather than proving Jane a bigamist and showing the world his own cowardice, he will go to the electric chair as “Edgar Smith,” redeeming himself for all of his mistakes in this way. The movie concludes by showing us that John Tremble has now become a part of Jane’s Whispering Chorus, the noble version of him guides her conscience through life.

On the whole, I enjoyed this movie more than “Old Wives for New,” also made by DeMille in the same year. While both were written by a woman (Jeannie MacPherson) and intended to appeal to a female audience, this movie does rather a better job of sympathizing with the wife’s point of view. At the beginning of the movie, I was a little worried that her desire for a new dress, and apparent neglect of her husband’s appearance would be blamed for all of the hardship that followed, but the script makes it clear that it is John’s bad decisions that are blame. Jane is portrayed throughout as decent and kind. John, on the other hand, is callous regarding her to the point of psychosis. His Whispering Chorus may be giving him bad advice, but he’s the one who never considers the effect of his actions on the people who love him, almost right up to the final scenes of the movie. It seemed to me that he had the perfect “out” when he made the excuse about going back to the office – he could have replaced the money then and the whole thing would have been cleared up. If there had been a scene showing him at the office, but seeing a cop on guard or something like that, it would have made more sense for him to run away.

John Tremble may be a heel, but Raymond Hatton is outstanding. He gives Lon Chaney a run for his money in changing his face several times in the course of this movie, also developing different body language as he goes from clerical worker to fugitive to deadbeat to convict. The wife who doesn’t recognize her own husband when he shaves (or grows) a beard may be a cliché in silent movie plots, but in this case, the transformation he undergoes makes it believable. The story also gives them several years of distance to help the memory fade. It’s sort of a reversal of “The Return of Martin Guerre,” and it works, but mainly because Hatton is so convincing. This is up there with the best work I’ve seen from DeMille as well, he keeps the story moving through editing and good use of multiple angles to show scenes and simultaneous action. The one weird choice was having the wedding inter-cut with John’s infidelity, though I suppose this was to insure that the audience would sympathize with Jane, even though she was technically violating one of American cinema’s cardinal rules by re-marrying while her husband was still alive.

Director: Cecil B. DeMIlle

Camera: Alvin Wyckoff

Starring: Raymond Hatton, Kathlyn Williams, Elliott Dexter, Edythe Chapman, Gustav von Seyffertitz, Edna Mae Cooper, Julia Faye, Noah Beery, Tully Marshall, Charles Ogle

Run Time: 1 hr, 25 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Neigbors (1920)

This 2-reel comedy from Buster Keaton has a very simple storyline – a romance involving a boy and the girl next door – but manages to be nicely coherent and demonstrate production value above what he did with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle for Comique.

Buster Keaton and Virginia Fox play young lovers who live in tenements, the rear of which face each other, with backyards separated by a wooden fence and with their families constantly feuding over the lovers’ relationship. They pass love notes through a hole in the wood, only to be caught by her father (Joe Roberts) and his mother, each of whom successively gets in trouble with his/her own spouse for presumed cheating (Buster’s father is played by his real-life dad, Joe Keaton). Buster sneaks into Virginia’s bedroom window as the parents are arguing but he is caught by Virginia’s father who ties him to the washing lines and slowly sends him back over to his family’s house. Buster sets up a board on a pivot on the gate so that it spanks anyone who passes between the two yards, then uses this to chastise his pursuers as he athletically springs from one side to the other. Along the way, he accidentally hits a cop who wanders into the yard. As Keaton’s face is covered in oil at the time, the cop pursues him, but when he wipes off the oil, the cop is deceived and arrests a convenient African American instead. Later, Buster gets black paint on his face and the chase is on again. Eventually, he as well as both families end up in court. Buster demands the right to marry Virginia, and the judge insists that the two families not interfere in their plans.

On the day of the wedding, tensions remain high. Keaton is unable to get his suspenders on, and tries using clothes pins as a makeshift belt, but they keep falling down during the ceremony. He tries to remedy this by stealing the preacher’s belt, but this only delays the wedding further. When Roberts sees that the ring Buster intends to give to Virginia is a cheap 10-cent ring purchased from Woolworths, he angrily calls off the wedding and drags Virginia home. Buster now teams up with his friends, the Flying Escalantes, to rescue Virginia by running across the yard on their shoulders, retrieving her suitcase, and ultimately her as well, but they are pursued by Roberts, running down the street through scaffolding, and eventually dropping through a sidewalk cellar hatch into a boiler room where a preacher just happens to be stoking the fire. He pronounces them husband and wife.

This movie demonstrates Buster Keaton’s ability to get a lot out of a little, and reminds me in some ways of Chaplin’s “Easy Street,” in that so much of it is centered around a single set,, reproducing a location in a lower-class urban neighborhood. Not having full-scale riots or anarchist plots, it may seem less ambitious than that film, but the added element of a third dimension makes it physically quite impressive. Fox’s bedroom is on the third floor, and Keaton gets in there any way he can, except for the stairs. The most exciting part is when he rides the shoulders of the Flying Escalantes back and forth across that yard, with each of them entering the building on his floor, only to turn around and come out at the exact moment to catch each other (and Keaton, and eventually Fox) on his shoulders. These shots are done in long takes, so the timing had to be perfect for it to look right, though of course in a silent movie they could have been shouting instructions at each other as they went, making it a bit easier to know just when to step out of the window. It looks great, at any rate.

Joe abusing Buster – just like old times.

So far as I can recall, this is the biggest role Buster had yet given his father in a movie. Although Joe Roberts remains the main heavy, Joe Keaton gets a chance to reprise some of the work he and Buster did on the stage during their days in vaudeville. These usually involved Buster making dad angry, then getting used as a “human mop,” which resulted in some groups protesting the show on the grounds that Joe was abusing his child. Keaton was of course a trained physical comedian from a young age, and claimed he was never hurt by this, but at times you can see how people could get the wrong idea. By now, as an adult, his victimization is safe to laugh at. Unfortunately, there’s some rather unpleasant ethnic humor targeting African Americans that comes across as much less funny today – including Keaton’s blackface scrapes with the police and a scene in which he rises up from under a sheet, causing a black family to run away in superstitious terror. These bits of the film didn’t ruin it for me, but they certainly don’t add anything.

Director: Buster Keaton, Edward F. Cline

Camera: Elgin Lessley

Starring: Buster Keaton, Virginia Fox, Joe Roberts, Joe Keaton, Edward F. Cline, Jack Duffy

Run Time: 18 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Scarecrow (1920)

Another of Buster Keaton’s early solo shorts, this one has a lot in common with the work he was doing a year earlier with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, including a cameo from one of the more recognizable Comique players. It’s probably more famous, though, for establishing Keaton’s fascination with gadgets.

As the movie opens, Keaton is sharing a one-room house with frequent foil, Joe Roberts. Buster has a toothache, and Roberts tries to help by tying the tooth to the door with a piece of string, then suddenly opening it to yank out the tooth. It opens the wrong way, though, and all Roberts succeeds in doing is hitting Buster in the nose with the door. This causes the angry Keaton to slam it shut, inadvertently pulling the tooth. Keaton fixes breakfast for the pair, while Roberts “sets” the table by pulling a string that lowers what they need from the ceiling. After the meal, they carry the tabletop, with all of the plates affixed to it, to the wall and spray it down with a hose. They drop the table leavings into a trapdoor that leads to the pigs’ slop-trough. Keaton’s bed folds up, Murphy-style, to become a piano, and the tub, when emptied, dumps water through a hole in the wall to create a pond for ducks, itself folding into a little bench.

The second reel deals with the rivalry of the two men for the heart of Sybil Seely, the classic girl-next-door. As soon as she appears, the two start running and pushing each other, quickly getting into a fight. When Sybil tries out some dance moves from a magazine, Roberts joins her, resulting in Keaton thinking he has lost, but soon he is pursued by Luke the Dog, who has just eaten a cream pie, making it look like he is rabid. He does his old trick of climbing a ladder to chase Keaton around the roof of a crumbling abandoned farmhouse. Roberts, meanwhile, has bought various medical supplies in anticipation of Buster’s needs, but ends up getting run down by a car and using them n himself. Buster falls into a hay thresher, which rips off most of his clothes, effectively ending the chase. It also results in him “exposing” himself (well, his underthings) to Sybil, resulting in her father (Joe Keaton) chasing him and knocking over Roberts, who now tries to propose to Seely.

Good Dog!

Unbeknownst to them, Buster has “borrowed” the clothes of a scarecrow in the field and now, posing as the scarecrow manages to prevent the proposal and start a fight between Roberts and the farmer. Buster then trips into a kneeling position while tying his shoes, and Sybil believes he is proposing marriage to her. Next the couple speeds off on a motorcycle with Roberts and the farmer in hot pursuit. Scooping up a minister during the chase, they are married on the speeding motorcycle and splash into a stream at the climax of the ceremony and the film.

This movie seems like a throwback to the earlier Comique movies, helped by the presence of Luke the Dog. Joe Roberts seems, especially in the early part of the film, to be playing the Arbuckle role, although he develops into a more generic heavyset antagonist as the movie goes along. There’s nowhere near as much of a story as we got in “One Week” or “Convict 13,” in fact it’s so loose it feels more like “The Butcher Boy” than “The Garage.” It’s mostly a series of unconnected gags and chase sequences. The beginning, though, is built around the many bizarre labor-saving devices of Keaton’s and Robert’s home, which is a treat for Keaton fans. I’ll admit that I generally don’t find this all that funny, but it is interesting to see what Keaton comes up with. The best part is when Luke chases Keaton back to the house and he tries to evade the dog by using the various trapdoors and hidden exits. This is the biggest role I’ve yet seen Keaton give to his father, which also lends to the feeling that this is a smaller, more last-minute production than the others we’ve seen so far.

Director: Edward F. Cline, Buster Keaton

Camera: Elgin Lessley

Starring: Buster Keaton, Joe Roberts, Sybil Seely, Luke the Dog, Joe Keaton, Edward F. Cline

Run Time: 19 Min

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