Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

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.

Do Re Mi Boom1

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).

The Mark of Zorro (1920)

Douglas Fairbanks is a swashbuckling hero in this first adaptation of the famous novel “The Curse of Capistrano,” published just one year before. Generally seen as the beginning of a new direction in his career, the movie shows us how far cinematic techniques come since his start in 1915 as well.

MarkofZorro

The movie begins with intertitles that establish what might be Doug’s ideological stance – that oppressive systems breed their own downfall by causing heroic men to become freedom fighters in the cause of the people. Zorro is presented as such a man, and we see a soldier with a “Z-” shaped scar commiserating with his fellows in a bar. We learn that Zorro punished him for mistreating a local Native American, but also that the situation for the rich is not much better as the Governor imposes such high taxes on Don Carlos, father of Lolita Pulido (Marguerite de le Motte), that he is doomed to lose his lands. We return to the bar, where Sergeant Gonzales (Noah Beery) rails against Zorro and boasts of his prowess with the sword. He insults, but accepts free drinks from Don Diego (Douglas Fairbanks), a foppish, sickly noble. After he leaves, of course, Zorro comes in and defeats Gonzales in a duel, and fights off all of the other soldiers as well, humiliating them and generally wrecking the place.

Mark of Zorro1 Read the rest of this entry »

The Witch’s Revenge (1903)

This short trick film from Georges Méliès takes the basic format of one of his magic shows and integrates it into a plot – a plot that seems to playfully celebrate the diabolical powers of Satanism! Lighthearted and fun, it manages on a small budget to provide almost as much entertainment as one of the longer films he was experimenting with at the time.

Witchs Revenge

The stage is set as the throne room of a medieval King, with a throne and some lesser courtly chairs at one end and a post with chains attached at the other. A backdrop completes the picture, suggesting a large room with a colonnade allowing a view of a city beyond. A man with a beard (played by Méliès)is in chains, dragged in by two guards while another man, evidently the King looks on. The King signals that the bearded man be shackled to the post, but the sorcerer (for he is such) pleads with him for mercy, promising to use his powers to benefit the King. The King, intrigued, agrees and sends the guards out of the room. The sorcerer now summons an imp, who rises from the floor and tumbles, before going off-stage. Moments later, a large portable stage (identified in the Star Films catalog as a “palanquin”) is brought forth. The sorcerer gestures and three women in Greek costumes appear. The sorcerer gestures again and they come to life, now dressed in courtly clothes, one assuming the role of a Queen and the others her ladies-in-waiting. The King takes the Queen by the hand and escorts her to a place of honor near the throne and the ladies take up positions nearby. The sorcerer now begins some tricks to amuse the Court, beginning with a chair that he makes spin in place and hop around. He turns it into a clown that performs some tumbles before becoming a chair once again. The sorcerer sits in the chair and disappears. The King rushes over to investigate, only to find the sorcerer is now in his throne! He summons the guards but the sorcerer turns them into demons, who chain the King to the post that was meant for the sorcerer. The sorcerer takes his crown and his Queen as the King struggles against the chains.

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The French title of this movie is “Le Sorcier” which is why I have described the man with the beard as a sorcerer, but the English title uses the term “witch,” which has come to be associated only with women. This was not always the case, and during the time of the witch trials it could be used to describe a person of either gender who made a pact with the Devil to gain worldly power. In that sense, it works just as well for the condemned magician of this story, who obviously does call upon Hellish powers to usurp the King’s position. Why would Méliès make a movie in which the Devil wins? Well, it’s not the first time there has been some playful blasphemy in a Méliès film, for example in “The Devil in a Convent.” But, I think the explanation here has more to do with the nature of comedy. The movie begins with a man in chains, bullied by guards, and in the power of the King. It’s funniest if that situation is reversed at the end. Think of Charlie Chaplin, and the other “little men” of silent comedy, and how they overcame cops, bosses, waiters, large powerful convicts, and other minions of authority. Here, Méliès is doing the same thing, only in this case the authority is endowed with the Divine Right of Kings, so the element of sacrilege is already there, even without bringing in imps and demons. Méliès takes it one step further, and, this time, unlike in “The Devil in a Covent” or “The Devil and the Statue,” he skips the “squaring-up” at the end and doesn’t have the sorcerer get his due – which would make this a moral lesson, rather than a simple comedy.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès, unknown

Run Time: 3 Min, 22 secs

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

Why Broncho Billy Left Bear County (1913)

This typical short Western from Essanay shows Gilbert M. Anderson’s best-known character once again in trouble with the law, but acting from a code of decency nevertheless. It would be more or less impossible to reconcile its narrative with any coherency with other stories in the series, but that never seems to have been a concern for Anderson or his audiences.

Why Broncho Billy Left Bear County

The movie begins by showing a girl (Marguerite Clayton) ministering to her sick mother. She runs out of medicine, and goes out to another room to find her father (Lloyd Ingraham) snoozing in an easy chair. She gives him the empty medicine bottle and some money and sends him off to get more. Dad, it seems, however, is not the most reliable errand-boy, as we will see later, but we do see her admonish him as she gives him the money and there is a curious shot of him crossing a creek, sniffing the bottle and using the creek water to rinse it out. Now we switch scenes to a typical Western bar, and Broncho Billy sidles up to the bar and orders a drink. Dad comes into the bar and speaks with the bartender (Harry Todd) before slumping down in a chair at a table. The bartender brings him a menu written on a small tablet/chalk board, and takes a coin from him and erases something from it when he makes his selection. He then brings Dad a full bottle and lets him pour out a drink. After a while, Dad is pretty drunk, and he pulls out the medicine bottle and hands over the last of his coins, asking the bartender to fill it with rotgut. The bartender looks at the bottle and then goes to draw from what looks like the cheapest bottle in the house (actually it looks more like a large wine bottle). Dad passes out while he fills it.

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Now Marguerite, wondering what’s taking so long, walks up and sees the bartender putting booze into the medicine bottle. She puts two and two together and goes to intervene. She wakes up her father and sniffs the bottle, then calls to the bartender, who refuses to take back the booze, insisting that the sale is complete. Broncho Billy sees what’s going on from across the room, and squares things with the bartender, giving him his gun in exchange for him returning both the empty bottle and the money to the girl. She is thankful, but now she struggles to get her dad to come with her, so Billy gives an assist. She goes to the drug store and gets the medicine while Billy sees to Dad, who is now awake and quite upset at the situation. They get back to her home and she gives Billy a prayerbook as a reward.

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The Intertitles tell us it is now the next day, and Billy is on horseback in the woods. He sees the stage driving up and gets himself into position to rob it, but Marguerite sees him and shames him out of doing it. She speaks to him and he takes out the little prayer book she gave. Meanwhile, Dad robs the stage a few feet down the road. He takes the strongbox and bashes it open with a rock, taking the loot bags and riding to his home, unaware that Billy has seen him. We now see the sheriff rousing his deputies in pursuit, as the report of the robbery has come in. Billy goes to the house and warns Dad they are coming, offering to take the cash off his hands. Billy mounts up and there is a wild chase on the road, with the posse in close pursuit. Billy manages to reach the County line, and he leaves the bags at the marker with a note that he is leaving the territory for good. The posse is satisfied to recover the money, and does not pursue him past their jurisdiction. A final shot shows Billy at church, kneeling and putting his prayerbook to good use.

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The first problem with this movie is that there are sources that list it as “Why Broncho Billy Left Bear Country,” which implies a different kind of a story. Even the DVD collection I have gives a different title on the beginning of the movie and the intertitles (both of which look reconstructed, to me). The fact that “Bear County” is written on the sign where Billy hangs the money seems to resolve that question, as well as the fact that we don’t see any bears, which would seem necessary to establish “bear country” in context. I had a hard time recognizing Dad as the robber in the second half of the film, and without that information, the story was confusing the first time through. The only thing that distinguishes him, given the quality of the print I was watching, was his checkered shirt. Poor Marguerite, with a dissipated father who resorts to such un-Christian acts! The color of the medicine and the booze were also very similar, which got me to wondering whether Ma might also be a secret tippler, and the medicine really snake oil all along. The most interesting thing cinematically about this movie is the editing. Most of the movie is stagey, with long, stationary shots in which the actors go about their business. The first moment in which this is disrupted is actually when Billy goes to help out Marguerite. Suddenly there are edits from him to the bar to the table where Dad and Marguerite are, giving the audience a sense of things happening at the same time. The bigger use of this is the horse chase at the end, where Anderson seems to be trying to emulate “The Great Train Robbery” by creating an action-suspense sequence to keep the audience on the edge of their seats. It’s not quite so thrilling as that movie, but with the moment of suspense when the posse is bearing down on the house where Billy and Dad are exposed with the loot, there is a moment of genuine alarm.

Director: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson, Marguerite Clayton, Lloyd Ingraham, Harry Todd, Fred Church, Victor Potel, True Boardman, David Kirkland

Run Time: 13 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Sky Scrapers of New York City from the North River (1903)

This short from Edison is a classic Panorama of lower Manhattan, taken from a moving boat. Movies like this were old hat by 1903, but apparently there was still enough of a market to justify another one.

Skyscrapers from the North River1

The image begins with the camera facing a pier, with a tugboat steaming across the screen in the opposite direction to the motion of the camera. We pass a docked steamship and the next pier – clearly labeled “Pier 13.” Once we get past this pier, a bit of the city can be seen in the distance, although by modern standards these buildings are hardly “skyscrapers.” As get proceed further, there is a docked ferry (very similar in design to current ones), and now some taller buildings come into view. According to the Library of Congress’s summary, these include the Syndicate Building, Trinity Church, and the Surety Building. We pass a docked freighter and another tugboat steams through the frame. At this point the buildings in the background at tall enough to reach about 4/5 of the top of the frame, so they are impressively tall. A building marked “Babbitt” is a soap factory, according to LoC. Piers 4 and 5 are labelled “Pennsylvania Railroad,” and several barges, evidently intended to carry railroad cars, are piled nearby. The buildings here are somewhat shorter, but large. LoC identifies two as the Bowling Green Building and the Whitehall Building. Piers 2 and three are marked “Lehigh Valley,” and a very tall building (taller than the frame) sits next to #2. Pier One is Pennsylvania Railroad again, but it is followed by “New Pier 1,” which is owned by the United Fruit Company. LoC tells us that the next pier is Pier A, and that the boat marked “Patrol” is a police vessel. Now the Battery comes into view, and we see the Fireboat House and Castle Garden, which was an aquarium at the time, as we pass along the park’s edge. The camera shows Battery Park’s waterfront and begins to turn away from Manhattan at the end.

Skyscrapers from the North River

I was a bit confused by the designation “North River” when I first saw this, expecting it would show the northern part of Manhattan, but it actually shows the southern. The low pier numbers kind of gave it away, even before I recognized the Battery. Edison’s catalog doesn’t give the kind of detail about the location that you might expect; it only mentions the aquarium. Their emphasis is on the “beautiful stereoscopic effect of the sky-scrapers,” by which I suppose they meant that you could see the nearer objects moving faster than those further away (?). Stereoscopy normally refers to systems like Viewmaster, where a 3D effect is produced by showing different images to the left and right eyes, but so far as I know, no such technology was in use for motion picture film at the time. The film overall is probably of greatest interest to architectural and maritime historians and history buffs.

Director: Unknown

Camera: James Blair Smith

Run Time: 3 Min, 38 secs

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

The Mollycoddle (1920)

Douglas Fairbanks plays up the kind of comedy he established five years earlier with “The Lamb” in this typical exploit in which he plays a rich milksop who has to overcome his Old World weaknesses to become a peppy and effective American hero. Along with “When the Clouds Roll By,” this is one of the first directorial efforts of Victor Fleming.

Mollycoddle-1920

This movie begins with an odd sort of “Land Acknowledgement” in which Fairbanks thanks the Hopi of Arizona for “in their savage way” allowing them to film in their “primitive” villages. Since the movie is itself a kind of critique of civilization, this may not be intended to be as insulting as it sounds. A Hopi village is contrasted with an image of Monte Carlo to bring home the point. Doug plays the part of Richard Marshall V, an heir of pioneers and heroes who has been raised with refined manners in England, although he is an American. We see some flashbacks to the glory days of Richard Marshall III and IV (both played by Doug). It is established that the family heirloom is a medal awarded to the first Richard by George Washington, though we don’t see any of his heroics.

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Fantasmagorie (1908)

This early work from Gaumont is among the first animated movies I have discovered during this project, though, as with the early works of Windsor McCay, it includes live-action images of the illustrator and follows a stream-of-consciousness storyline.

Fantasmagorie

The first image is of the illustrator’s hand, drawing an odd little character I’m going to call “the clown.” He has a pointy hat, baggy pants, and an “x” on his shirt. Otherwise, he is basically a stick figure. When he first appears, he is hanging from a beam, but he pulls this down to show a screen, with a fat character in a top hat inside. The fat character sits in a chair facing a movie screen, with the clown in the seat before him. The clown turns into a spider and swings away on a strand of web. Then a lady comes into the theater with a large hat adorned with enormous flowers. She sits in front of the fat man and he cannot see. He starts pulling flowers off the hat, but it doesn’t make a lot of difference. He rips a hole in a wall (or maybe it’s a tent flap) and hurls most of the hat through it, choosing to pull the last piece off and sit on it. He then lights a cigar and the clown reappears inside of a bubble he blows. The clown expands to enormous size and pushes everyone else off the screen, then he shrinks down and gets inside a box. The fat man comes back and puts a weight on top, but the clown bursts out and pokes him with his pointy hat. Suddenly the fat man is replaced by an old man in a chair and the clown steals his hat, snagging it on a fishhook. It turns into a blob-shape, then suddenly is a giant, sword-wielding soldier, who attacks the clown who now has a candle instead of a fishing rod. The clown puts the sword in the candlestick holder and it becomes a potted plant. Somehow, the clown’s nose is now attached to the end of the plant and he is lifted into the air as it rapidly grows. His head is pulled off his body and flung into the hands of another character, who treats it like a balloon. The clown’s body reclaims the head and the new character turns into a cannon that also looks like a giant bottle, pointing and the clown. It pulls the clown inside rather than shooting him and then opens up as the petals of a flower, revealing the clown inside. It then turns into a long snake-like object which is revealed as the trunk of an elephant, and the clown tries to ride the elephant. The elephant turns into a building and the clown opens the door and goes inside, just as a policeman walk up. The policeman locks the door, but the clown leaps out of the second-story window, breaking into pieces when he hits the ground. The animator’s hands reappear, and he puts the clown back together. The clown gets up and blows on a trumpet, which causes his pants to blow up like a balloon and he flies off, finally landing on the back of a horse.

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All of that happens in less than two minutes! There’s not much time to make sense of it all, this is really more of a quick whimsical experiment in animation than an attempt to create a narrative. Still, certain aspects of cartoon narration are here – slapstick and violent comedy, for example, and taking advantage of the fact that drawn characters can magically transform or be dismembered and put back together again. I was reminded of the Sennett/Griffith collaboration “Those Awful Hats” by the sequence in the movie theater. All of the action takes place against a black background and most of the characters are stick-figure sketches, which probably made re-drawing them quickly an easier task. Apparently there were two other Gaumont animated releases that I haven’t come – it’s possible they have been lost. It appears that this proved to be too much work for the amount of entertainment it provided and they gave it up after that until better animation technology was developed.

Director: Emile Cohl

Run Time: 1 min, 15secs

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

Orphans of the Storm (1921)

Five years after “Intolerance,” D.W. Griffith released this epic film about sisters in revolutionary Paris, filled with romance, intrigue, suspense, and, yes, spectacle. Griffith had a huge reputation to live up to, and struggled to maintain his critical success with each new picture. How does this movie hold up after 100 years?

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The movie begins with the usual Griffith intertitles expostulating on the past and current affairs. In this case, he evokes the history of the Reign of Terror to warn against America’s possible descent into “Anarchy and Bolshevism,” putting you on notice as to where he stands. Then more intertitles introduce our backstory, which establishes the classic orphaned child of the nobility being left at the steps of Notre Dame Cathedral to freeze, but rescued by a peasant who had intended to do the same with his own baby daughter. These two grow up together in provincial poverty, never knowing their roots, and become real-life sisters Dorothy and Lillian Gish, playing Louise and Henriette Girard, respectively.

Orphans of the Storm1 Read the rest of this entry »