Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Month: March, 2014

Book Review: 100 Silent Films

Worldcat Link: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/719415465

isbn: 9781844573080

Full Citation: Bryony Dixon. 100 Silent Films. London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2011.

This guide has provided me with about twenty leads for this project; all of them very interesting so far. The bulk of the movies listed are from the “golden age” of silents in the twenties. Most of the major ones you’ve heard of are here, but Dixon makes a special effort to include lesser-known gems that will surprise and delight. She also sneaks in mentions of more than 100 movies, if you are attentive. One example is the review of D.W. Grifftih’s “Adventures of Dollie,” which begins with a full paragraph about its predecessor “Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest,”  Griffith’s first starring vehicle as an actor. Of course, any fan will dispute this or that entry and why not an entry for this or that film, but as a general introduction it is excellent.

I enjoyed Dixon’s easy style and her profound knowledge of her subject. Were I her grading TA, I would criticize her for spending a bit too much time describing, rather than analyzing, the films she covers, but this probably makes the book more accessible to a general audience. The book includes many nicely reproduced photos from the films, including some you’ve probably not seen before, and which heighten the interest in seeing the movies. There is also a brief bibliography, a short introduction, and a small but functional index. The meat of the book, however, is the movies, and if you are interested in the history of film at all, this is a fine source which proves that the film guide is not yet dead.

Read the complete review: here

 

Student of Prague (1913)

Student of Prague

Original Title: Der Student von Prag

Director/Star: Paul Wegener (co-directed by Stellan Rye)

What defines a horror movie? If it can be defined by the presence of a supernatural antagonist which threatens the protagonist and other characters with death, then this movie qualifies as an early example (though probably not the first). In it, Paul Wegener (later to direct and star in “The Golem” and its several remakes/sequels) stars as the eponymous student, a carefree, hard-living lad, until he falls in love with a local noblewoman, betrothed to her own cousin to preserve the family line. He makes a deal with a Magician, who may or may not be the Devil (and looks like sort of a cross between Georges Melies and Dr. Caligari) in order to possess her. The deal seems innocent enough – our student simply agrees to let the Magician take away his reflection in the mirror. But, this results in the existence of a dangerous doppelgänger, who seems bent on destroying the student’s happy life. Wegener really goes to town, portraying the sinister reflection and the horrified student, and there are some neat camera tricks to allow them to interact. I also noticed that the camera moves in this movie more than in most I’ve seen from the period, if only to keep up with actors as they move out of frame, which gives it a more modern feel than, for example “The Avenging Conscience.”

Run Time: Supposedly, 85 min originally. There is an 83 minute “restored” version I haven’t seen, and the one I have seen is 41 min.

You can watch it for free: here

Edison: The Invention of the Movies

Fred Ott

Worldcat link: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/57182599

This is a collection of movies from the studio that “invented” them, the Thomas Edison Company. Although motion picture cameras were invented in several times and places (and the Lumiere brothers have a better claim on getting the first practical system into operation), this does include some of the earliest film footage that survives today. It’s fascinating to watch how the films evolved with audience expectations. At a certain point, Edison was no longer “cutting edge,” but for the first decade of film history, and particularly with the introduction of Edwin S. Porter as the chief director, Edison defined American filmmaking for the world. Some of his most memorable works include “The Great Train Robbery,” arguably the first “western” and “Jack and the Beanstalk,” which is reminiscent of Melies in its use of fantasy and effects. Also of interest is “Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest,” which starred future director D.W. Griffith. Since these movies were shot in and around New York City, there is a lot of interesting footage to show what my home town looked like a hundred years ago, and numerous other fascinating historical details. The whole set takes over fourteen hours to watch, but that’s less than many viewers today will “binge-watch” when doing a TV series.

Perils of Pauline (1914)

Perils_of_Pauline

Directed by: Louis J. Gasnier & Donald MacKenzie

Starring: Pearl White

This early silent serial originated many of the familiar clichés of the later era – including the young woman who is frequently tied up and rescued, the heroic yet oblivious young man who allows her to get into perilous situations in the first place, and the diabolical masked villain who is actually close to the protagonist in ordinary life. Oh, and cliff-hangers. Lots of cliff-hangers. Pauline (portrayed by Pearl White, who had already done a series of “Pearl” movies and would later star in “The Exploits of Elaine”) is a young heiress, betrothed to the son of her former guardian, who wants a “life of adventure” before she settles down. Her hero is the hapless Harry (Crane Wilbur, who later wrote horror classics like “The Bat” and “House of Wax”), who never manages to be around when she gets into trouble, but always has to arrive in the nick of time to get her out of it. The villain is the heavy-set Paul Panzer (whose career went on for decades, allowing him to appear in the 1947 remake, as well as “Mildred Pierce” and “Casablanca” in small roles), who is Harry’s father’s executor, and who hopes to pay off his gambling debts with Pauline’s inheritance, which reverts to him if she should die by some “misfortune” previous to her wedding day. Perils from which Pauline is either rescued from or rescues herself include a burning house, a runaway balloon, a blocked-in cave, a band of savage Indians, a ticking bomb, drowning at sea, drowning in a cellar, a sabotaged biplane, a sabotaged submarine, a poisonous snake, and various gangs of ruffians (especially gypsies).

Run Time: Reputed to have been 20 episodes originally, today only 9 exist.

You can watch some episodes of this for free: here, here, and here.

The Lumiere Brothers’ First Films

Worldcat link: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/41419014

This disc is a compilation of the very first “movies” made by the inventors of the first effective motion picture camera/projector system. Each is more or less precisely fifty seconds long and consists of a single subject. Some of them you’ve heard of – “A Train Coming into the Station,” for example, or “Workers Leaving the Factory.” Many of them are more obscure. A surprising number were taken in exotic locations around the world, including New York, Berlin, Jerusalem, Constantinople (now Istanbul) and Indochina (now Vietnam). Many of them are documentaries, in the sense of being totally unstaged, but many are at least partly arranged by the cameraman, and there are a number of comedic bits, including a famous one in which a man is sprayed by a hose after a boy stands on it for a few seconds. The DVD includes narration by Bertrand Tavernier, which sometimes adds to the movies, but just as often is distracting. Worth watching at least once with the piano score only.

 

Mabel at the Wheel (1914)

Mabel_at_the_Wheel

Director: Mabel Normand, Mack Sennett

In early 1914, Charlie Chaplin (later to direct and star in such films as “The Gold Rush” and “Modern Times”) signed with Keystone Studios and started cranking out slapstick comedy shorts. In very little time, he had become a tremendous success, and remains an iconic image of American film today. This early effort is interesting in part because it is so different to the more familiar Chaplin work. For one thing, it’s about twice as long as most of the others (over twenty minutes), but more noticeably, it uses Chaplain very differently. In many of these early films, he’s morally ambiguous but curiously sympathetic, but in this one, he tries to portray a classic pantomime villain! He already has the signature small mustache (he doesn’t in all of the Keystones), but he also has a sinister dual-goatee, which is our first hint. His primary weapon at the beginning of the film is a pin, which he uses on tires, knees, and butts to mostly comedic slapstick effect, but when the going gets rough we find he has two ruffian sidekicks and a stash of round anarchist-style bombs to use. The hero of this film is Mabel Normand (also in “Tillie’s Punctured Romance” and “Mabel’s Strange Predicament” with Chaplin), a force in early teens cinema, and the co-director of this opus along with Mack Sennett, the owner of Keystone.

Run Time: 23 min

You can watch it for free: here

March 1914

Mary_Raleigh_Richardson

Mary Raleigh Richardson, who vandalized a painting in March, 1914

As we proceed through our century films, it’s worthwhile to think about what was going on during the time in history we are considering. What was going on one hundred years ago, and how did it affect film makers and film audiences? This, I hope, will be a regular column for context.

Diplomacy: On March 14th, Serbia signs a peace treaty with Turkey, bringing to an official end to the Second Balkan War against the Ottoman Empire. Fighting had ceased the previous summer, and the other major combatants had been signatories to the Treaties of Bucharest and Constantinople. This brief period of peace in the Balkan region of Europe would end once again in a few months with the outbreak of World War One.

Medicine: On March 27th, Belgian doctor Alfred Hustin performs the first successful non-direct blood transfusion, paving the way for the development of blood banks and the saving of millions of lives.

Sports: On March 19th, the Toronto Blueshirts defeat the Victoria Aristocrats for the Stanley Cup.

Politics & Art: On March 10th, suffragette Mary Richardson damages Velázquez’ painting Rokeby Venus in London’s National Gallery with a meat chopper. This act of feminist vandalism was done in part to protest the arrest of Emmaline Pankhurst the previous days, and also because Richardson didn’t like “the way men visitors gaped at it all day long.”

Crime: On March 16th, Henriette Caillaux, wife of French minister Joseph Caillaux, murders Gaston Calmette, editor of Le Figaro, fearing publication of letters showing she and Caillaux were romantically involved during his first marriage. Due to her being a woman, this will be labeled a “crime of passion” and result in her acquittal of premeditated murder.

The Movies: The Avenging Conscience released March 24, Perils of Pauline released March 31.

Births: March 2, Director Martin Ritt, who would make “Hud” (1963), “The Great White Hope” (1970), and “The Front” (1976).

Deaths: March 25, Frederic Mistral (83), who wrote the Provencal poem “Mireille.”

Cabiria (1914)

Cabiria

Director: Giovanni Pastrone

This could possibly have been the most immediately influential film of the year 1914. Often falsely credited as the “first feature film” or as the “first use of tracking shots,” it most probably introduced those concepts to many audiences and apparently also inspired Fritz Lang and D.W. Griffith at key points in their careers. Viewers familiar with Lang’s “Metropolis” will readily recognize the Temple of Moloch in this film, for example. It also introduced audiences to the Italian hero “Maciste,” who would star in literally dozens of “sword & sandal” films in the following century (many of them have been re-titled to the more familiar “Hercules” for English-speaking audiences). Here, he is cast as a slave, serving a Roman who has infiltrated Carthage during the Punic Wars. It’s also interesting in political/historical terms, for having been written by Gabriele D’Annunzio, the poet who would later inspire the early fascists with his symbolic occupation of Dalmatia. It would be a mistake to see this as a straight nationalist propaganda film, but the action and adventure is certainly steeped in the glory and romanticism of ancient Rome, and includes tropes, such as the salute and the fasces itself, that would later become important symbols. Be that as it may, the translated inter-titles, and especially the pagan prayers, are quite striking in their poetry.

Run Time: 120 minutes

You can watch it for free: here.

Some Reflections on Race

I’ve been writing this blog now for about a week, and I’m enjoying watching it grow into something interesting. I have big plans! But there are some things I haven’t yet addressed, which seem important. One of these is what century films tell us about the past in terms of racial history. Especially in American films of the period, one is sometimes brought up short by attitudes and images that would simply not be acceptable in polite society today. Seeing these movies reminds us that there was a time when the words and images we used to describe other people were rather more blunt than they are now.

In one sense, it can be good to be reminded how things have changed. Seeing a white man in blackface actually shocks us today; it didn’t then. It seems to me as if this is more true of race than, for example, gender relations, which often seem quaintly familiar to us in century films (but that’s a subject for a future blog post). We’re less likely to be shocked where less progress has happened. But, it isn’t enough to look down on our ancestors for having such primitive attitudes; part of the point of this blog is to remind us that these movies are a part of our common heritage, and the disturbing truth is that racism is a part of that heritage.

But, it isn’t the intention of this blog to simply ignore that, either. Earlier today I posted a review of Griffith’s “The Avenging Conscience,” which didn’t address the racialized character of “The Italian,” who was added to the story with no precedent from Poe. Every mention of Griffith alludes to his famous 1915 celebration of the Ku Klux Klan, “Birth of a Nation,” which, due to its release date, I get to wait a year before addressing. But we all know it’s there. What do we do with it?

I’m still looking for answers. I’ve found some of the historical reflections on DVDs about standards then and now to be informative, and I’ll try to include that as I write the reviews. It’s all too easy to let something like this become invisible, to let discussions of heritage be simplistic celebrations, devoid of analysis of the harder issues. For now, this post represents a humble attempt to open the discussion. You’re invited to comment, and I’ll see if I can think of more to say as I proceed.

Avenging Conscience (1914)

Avenging_Conscience_movie_poster

Director: D.W. Griffith

Starring: Henry B. Walthall, Blanche Sweet, Spottiswoode Aitken

I’m up to 1914 now in my project of watching century films, and by this time American cinema is becoming quite sophisticated, and is poised to wrest dominance from the French in terms of production and profitability. Directed by D.W. Griffith (later known for “Intolerance” and “The Birth of a Nation”), this Poe-adaptation claims to be based on “Annabel Lee,” and includes excerpts from that poem in the inter-titles, but it also owes much to “The Tell-Tale Heart.” In it, a young man (Henry B. Walthall, who played Poe in a version of “The Raven” the next year, and was also in the 1914 “Gangsters of New York”) loses his love (Blanche Sweet, whose career includes “A Corner in Wheat” and “Judith of Bethulia”) due to the cruelty of his aged uncle (Spottiswoode Aitken, who was also in “Birth of a Nation” and played Duncan in the 1916 “Macbeth”), and takes revenge into his own hands. The story is told with multiple camera-angles, visual metaphor, taut editing, and other advanced devices, far removed from the simple theatrical performances caught on camera that had been common only a few years earlier. One sequence includes speeded-up nature photography of ants and a spider killing its prey. Quite impressive, for the period, but with a really disappointing ending.

Total Run Time: 84 minutes

I haven’t found a free version of the whole film online (please comment if you have). You can watch a 56-minute version: here.