Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Month: April, 2014

Little Train Robbery (1905)

Little Train

This seems like a pretty appropriate movie to discuss, as Edison studios shifts from the “Age of Attractions” to the “Nickelodeon Era.” I have read that the very first movie shown at a Nickelodeon was “The Great Train Robbery,” and that in itself speaks to how the shift from spectacle to normalized entertainment was brought about, in part, due to the filmmaking advances of Edwin S. Porter. That movie was such a tremendous hit that it made sense, only two years later to send it up in this parody/homage/remake. This version shows the original film reenacted by children. It’s not (quite) a shot-for-shot remake, but it would definitely be recognizable to fans of the original. I actually think Porter improved on some technical aspects, such as the pan which follows the train as it approaches the ambush. As I’ve made some comments about gender in recent reviews, it’s worth noting for this one that the gang is led by the “Bandit Queen,” one of the only girls we can see clearly in this production (the others are among the victims on the Little Train). Although the boys clearly respect her authority, she does not take part in any of the physical acts of the robbery. She is also set free at the end, the one member of the gang to get away.

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Run Time: 10 Min, 30 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.

How a French Nobleman Got a Wife Through the ‘New York Herald’ Personal Columns (1904)

French Nobleman

Quite early on, Edwin S. Porter seems to have realized that the chase was a critical part of the spectacle of film that kept audiences coming back. The climactic chase in “The Great Train Robbery,” for example, is a good part of what makes it a dramatic success. Indeed, chase scenes remain an important element in film today. But, there were also many films made which were based on the chase as the central element, as this short comedy demonstrates. The basic concept is simple, an amorous single (and probably poor) foreigner has decided to place a personal ad, to find a mate. When he shows up at his announced rendezvous, he finds that far too many women have arrived, and he flees, to be pursued by the females through New York’s Riverside Park. Each shot shows him running, then each of the women in turn running after him. At the end, he is caught, ironically not by the swiftest runner, but by the one woman willing to follow him into a pond. Again, we have an interesting perspective on gender relations, something that wouldn’t seem out of place in an old Popeye cartoon: a man is overwhelmed by the attraction of the other sex and has to run from their ardor.

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Run Time: 11 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Jack and the Beanstalk (1902)


By 1902, it’s surprising how far film has come in terms of storytelling. This is the year that Méliès came out with “A Trip to the Moon” and also the year that Edwin S. Porter made this comparable fantasy. When I say “comparable,” I don’t really mean that this is a brilliant classic on quite the same level – somehow Méliès’s movie is the more charming and fresh, viewed so many years later. But it is similarly ambitious, and obviously responding to similar audience demands. Both are child-oriented fantasies, incorporating many camera and stage effects to create “magical” or fanciful situations. Both involve multiple scenes and set-ups, and the use of sophisticated editing structures to make sense of the story. Both involve journeys to far-off places, although they begin in more ordinary settings. And both draw from older literature for their source material: Verne in the case of Méliès, the Brothers Grimm in Porter’s. I’ve admitted to finding “A Trip to the Moon” a better movie than “Jack and the Beanstalk,” and I do think that Porter was stronger in dealing with realistic subjects, as he did the following year with “The Great Train Robbery.” Nevertheless, this is worth checking out as a demonstration that American cinema was giving the French a run for their money, and in their own type of subject-matter, very early in the history of movies.

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Run Time: 10 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Silent Shakespeare (1899-1911, 2000)


For the Bard’s birthday, I thought I’d review this collection, but it’s a little tricky because I already reviewed all of the movies it includes. Unfortunately, there are no special features or commentaries for me to discuss, so all I can say is that if you’d like to see a collection of very early film adaptations of Shakespeare all in one place: here it is. I can also mention the music, by Laura Rossi, which is subtle and appropriate to each film, although not what original audiences would have heard (it was composed for the DVD). I was a bit surprised, based on the title, that the most recent film on here was from 1911. That’s appropriate for this project, which only goes up to 1914 (for now), but I’d have thought that there were other, probably bigger, adaptations of Shakespeare in the “Classical Silent” period. Possibly they limited themselves for reasons of access and copyright, and perhaps a new collection with more recent movies will be forthcoming one of these years.

Worldcat link: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/44478627

Terrible Teddy, the Grizzly King (1901)

Terrible Teddy

This may be the first American political satire film, as well as being an early example of the work of director Edwin S. Porter. Porter, who up to this point had made many actualities as well as short comedic subjects strongly reminiscent of the work of Méliès, but this one does seem to express more of his “voice” as a director. It is apparently based on political cartoons that had run in major newspapers the same month as it was produced, giving an idea how fast the turnaround on film production was at the time. Theodore Roosevelt was being played up in the press as a serious outdoorsman, and a story ran about how he heroically killed a mountain lion; the cartoons and the film show him as a bumbler, followed by a press agent and a photographer, who guns down a harmless house cat, and skins it for the audience. Americans have always enjoyed laughing at our political figures, and Teddy was a particularly congenial subject for both friendly and unfriendly media humor. While this picture may not be as sophisticated as “The Daily Show,” it gives some hint as to the future importance of political comedy in our culture.

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Richard III (1911)

Richard III

My favorite Shakespeare play gets the silent film treatment in this series of 13 scenes or vignettes, which actually begin with the end of the previous play, Henry VI, Part 3. It stars Frank R. Benson as history’s greatest villain, and he also directed. Each scene is given a brief forward-facing intertitle to tell you what the action will be, and is also preceded by a brief quote from Shakespeare – thus giving us at least some of the traditional dialogue. Viewers familiar with the play will catch certain things that aren’t explained in the intertitles, for example why Richard gestures oddly with his left arm in the scene before Hastings is taken away to be executed, or why Buckingham becomes upset at Richard’s coronation. The production is British and they take advantage of good quality set design and centuries of experience staging Shakespeare to produce a quite acceptable silent version, although of course it is less satisfying than seeing it performed with dialogue. I especially missed the subtlety of the opening monologue and the banter between the hired murderers. I particularly liked the scene of Richard tormented by his conscience in the night before battle with Richmond: simple in-camera effects allowed each of his victims to appear before him in spirit-form.

Directed by: Frank R. Benson

Starring: Frank R. Benson

Run Time: 23 Min

You can watch part of it for free: here. (I was unable to find it complete. If you can, let me know!)

Searching Ruins of Broadway, Galveston, for Dead Bodies (1900)


At the tail end of the Nineteenth Century, a devastating storm swept over the coast of Texas, hitting the small community of Galveston and effectively wiping it from the map. As the official death toll mounted (eventually reaching 8000), Americans were stunned at the concept of an untamed nature that could still bring such tragedy to a scientifically advanced society. As well as being one of the great tragedies of American history, this was a tremendous media event. Reporters swarmed the area, and Edison Studios sent a man down with a camera to cover the wreckage. This in spite of martial law, and the threat of arrest or shooting for anyone seen taking pictures. It’s interesting now to view this early newsreel footage, in light of our changed expectations of privacy and publicity. I assume that the ban was enacted out of a sense of respect for the dead and their families, to prevent “vultures” from swooping in to profit from their loss. Today, when an event like this takes place (think of Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy), we as a nation assume the right to participate remotely, to grieve along with those who are suffering. We also understand the power of images of destruction to bring financial support and to urge the government to take action. These images of this particular tragedy help us to record a changing sense of journalistic ethics as a new era of media engagement began.

Director: Albert E. Smith

Run Time: 50 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.

Merchant of Venice (1910)

Merchant of Venice

This is another Italian adaptation of Shakespeare, by the same director who gave us “King Lear” a little while before. This makes sense as an adaptation, since the story is clearly set in Italy, but unfortunately the version we have is incomplete, so it’s hard to rate its success. It feels a bit rushed and overly-ambitious, introducing many characters and showing sub-plots that wind up unresolved. It’s another nice hand-tinted color print, and Lo Savio has taken advantage of some good locations for backdrops to the action. “The Merchant of Venice” is today probably Shakespeare’s most controversial play, sometimes invoking calls for censorship, because its villain is a Jew, who is made to represent all Jews in his greed and inhumanity. In 1910 this would likely have been a lesser consideration, in Italy and most of the continent, however what we have of this version seems to downplay the anti-Semtic theme, making Shylock a victim of his own duplicity rather than a representative of a race or religion. He is, however, trapped at the end by a law prohibiting Jews from spilling “Christian” blood, so an element of the original remains. On the whole, this movie comes across as less successful than the last couple I have discussed, but as I say it may be because of missing footage.

Director: Gerolamo Lo Savio

Run Time: 19 Min (original), 8-9 Min (surviving)

You can watch it for free: here.

Generations of 1914

Multi-Generation_Family 1914

Some historians like to take a “generational” approach to discussing social history. People who grow up together will see the world shaped in the same ways; they will take certain things for granted (because they already were around when they were born) and others will take some getting used to. One of the best uses of a generational approach I know of is Detlev Peukert’s analysis of German generations in his study, The Weimar Republic.

One of the neat things about looking at centenary history is that the numbers line up so well with what we know about today. I was born in 1970: I have memories of childhood in the 70s, tweens and teens in the 80s, and young adulthood in the 90s. If I had been born 100 years earlier, all those same decades would apply, we’d just be talking about the 1890s, rather than the 1990s.

Let’s take an example. When I was born, “the sixties” was already a done deal, but it was still pretty recent. I learned about it from my parents, teachers, and as I grew up, from the older “mentors” I found in my social sub-culture. I still considered hippies and Vietnam, Kennedy and Johnson to be pretty recent things (I admit, I’ve always had a bent for history, so maybe some people from my generation would disagree). When I talk to young people today, though, I realize that it’s a dark misty past, occupied by grandparents and other “old people,” if at all. If I’d been born in 1870, “the sixties” would be the decade of the American Civil War. To my generation, that war would be part of the context in which we grew up, but we’d have known people who experienced it firsthand. Assuming we’re Americans, the wounds would still have been open at the time, and the question of how to negotiate a country without slavery would be something people struggled with all our lives. For people born in 1890 or later, we’d get that “dark past” already. Sure, they would know that their grandparents had fought or lost loved ones, but that was a long time ago, right? Slavery would be pretty much unthinkable, although Jim Crow would be so entrenched it might seem eternal – the only way things could be in the South.

To bring this back to a film history perspective, let’s think about how the generations might experience films. For people born before 1870, film might seem like an oddity or an irrelevancy, except maybe for a few who saw it as a wonder and were fascinated, but still unsure how it all worked. For “my” generation (the 1870’ers), it would be something that hit as we grew to adulthood. I might have seen my first film in my late twenties, or a bit into my thirties, and it would be part of my sense of coming-of-age, or the progress that my generation had seen and participated in. For the pen-millennials (to coin a phrase), movies were always there, and the way they were made in 1897 was pathetically boring. Only the newest films seem like “real” movies, and they take film grammar and technique for granted.

Obviously, I’m suggesting a kind of parallel with technological advances of recent years, and just as obviously, the comparison only goes so far. A lot of people, of any age, never went to the movies, or only rarely. Your knowledge of film didn’t have much effect on your ability to get ahead in school, get a job, or keep in touch with your friends, among other things. Still, it’s interesting to think of people who long ago passed away of old age as being like us, or younger than us, and how they saw a world that was changing faster than they had ever expected.

Twelfth Night (1910)

Twelfth Night

This Shakespeare play remains a popular film subject, with its themes of gender confusion and romantic frustration, blended into a safe, comedic resolution. This was its first known film rendering, and it suggests that by 1910 we are moving into a different context for silent film adaptations of classical works. This time, we get a recognized “star” in the lead: Florence Turner, who would be in hundreds of movies during her career, and had appeared as Titania in the earlier “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Moreover, this is the first effort I’ve seen to preserve some of the Shakespearean dialogue by placing it into intertitles, about halfway through the film. This movie also generally preserves the full storyline, although it is much shortened to a length of twelve minutes, and the titles give enough information for an audience with no prior knowledge of the play to follow along. One gets the sense that, rather than simply giving a vignette or snippet of the Bard, it was the director’s hope here to actually render the play in the new medium of film. By modern standards, it may be only marginally successful, but it still seems like a sophisticated use of the technology to present something complete in itself.

Director: Charles Kent

Starring: Florence Turner

Run Time: 12 Min 27 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.