Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Month: April, 2014

King Lear (1910)

King Lear

One of the interesting things about silent movies is how readily they adapt subject matter across cultures. This is the first Shakespeare film I’ve talked about from a non-anglophone country, but since the emphasis is not on dialogue, there’s no sense of anything “lost in translation” between English and Italian. It also is the first film I’ve discussed which includes some hand-painted scenes and some tinting, so, in effect, a color film. There were many color film experiments in the silent era, and some studios employed large numbers of low-paid painters to apply color to movie strips by hand. The effect, when done well (as it is here) is striking and somewhat ethereal, since the hand-painting varies slightly from frame to frame. In terms of telling the story of King Lear and his daughters, I found some of the choices here interesting. The good daughter, Cordelia, is portrayed in the opening as somewhat taciturn, maybe even dour, and one can understand Lear’s preferring his more vivacious-seeming daughters. They also spend a good deal of time on a setup in which Lear compares his unfeeling daughters’ hearts to a stone, which it seemed to me might have been better blended with the previous scene of their betrayal, since all the actor has to do is talk to his servants, where a confrontation with his daughters would have been more visually interesting. There is no attempt to add a happy ending, and this comes off as the most “adult” or sophisticated century Shakespeare thus far.

Director: Gerolamo Lo Savio

Run time: 16 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Rounders (1914)

Rounders1914shot

Today is Charlie Chaplin’s 125th birthday, so I thought I’d take a break from the Edison shorts I’ve been reviewing and talk about another of his classic comedy reels from 1914. This one also stars Fatty Arbuckle, who was a major slapstick star at Keystone even before Chaplin arrived on the scene. I’m hoping to review some more of his work in the coming weeks. Here, the two of them portray standard comedy drunks. Doing drunks on Vaudeville stages is how Chaplin got his start, in fact. We tend to think of him as a lovable victim of society, but as a drunk he could be aggressive and foolish as well. Here, he and Fatty arrive home and fight with their wives, eventually linking up to go out in search of more booze (with money Fatty steals out of his wife’s purse), eventually causing chaos at a posh restaurant when they stagger in. Fair warning: the doorman at the bar is a white man in black-face, which is a reminder that what was acceptable humor in 1914 may not be OK 100 years later. The entire cast consists of some very talented pratfall artists, and you’ll be surprised at the stunts being pulled off by minor players. The movie includes several locations: a hotel where the couples live, the restaurant, and a quite recognizable park used in many Chaplin films, making this one of the more complex shoots he worked on at Keystone.

Director: Charles Chaplin

Starring: Charles Chaplin, Roscoe Arbuckle, Phyllis Allen, Minta Durfee

Run Time: 13 Min

You can watch it for free: here (this is a good-quality print with no music or intertitles). Or here (inferior print that is 3 minutes shorter, but has music and intertitles).

Cripple Creek Bar Room Scene (1899)

Cripple Creek

This is another one of those movies sometimes called “the first Western,” and I guess it has a reasonable claim, although it’s so short that it’s a little hard to think of it as really definable in terms of genre. It seems to be intended more for comedic effect than to make any deep statements about the frontier, although it does suggest something about the code of conduct in a “lawless” area. It shows a barroom in which a group of men are playing cards, and an obviously already-inebriated man comes in for a drink. After taking his drink, he knocks a stove-pipe hat off the head of an unconscious man, who wakes up and becomes annoyed. The newcomer is ejected by the bartender, a large woman, with some help from the card players. She then goes behind the bar and sets up drinks for the house. It’s interesting to note that she is obviously able to handle herself and not at all threatened by the drunk’s behavior. There are no guns on display, nor any apparent indication that their use would be likely. The card-players and the bartender seem to represent a kind of community standard for acceptable behavior, while the passed-out drunk is tolerated, and the aggressive drunk brings on social reprisal.

Director: James H. White

Run Time: 48 seconds

You Can Watch It for Free: Here.

The Long Nineteenth Century (1789-1914)

I’d like to discuss a concept this week which some of my readers might be familiar with. This is the concept of the “long 19th century.” If you haven’t heard of it, this might sound a little strange: every century is 100 years, no more, no less. It’s long compared to a decade, and short compared to a millennium, but it can’t be long or short compared to any other century. Strictly speaking, that’s true.

But, about fifty years ago, a historian named Eric Hobsbawm suggested we think about the nineteenth century (normally 1801-1900) in a new way. He said that the turning point was 1789, the French Revolution, and that old standards of the eighteenth century were swept away, followed by a long stretch in which a balance of power prevented large-scale change until the First World War, beginning in 1914.

So, here’s where that’s interesting, from the point of view of my century films project. It means that basically all of the films I’ve reviewed up to now can be seen as “nineteenth century” movies. And they do seem to have a certain Victorianism. Women’s dresses are long and unrevealing. Men seem to get agitated about ankles. We’ve seen lots of railroad trains, but relatively few cars and no airplanes at all. Depictions of soldiers and war seem to be un-self-consciously patriotic. European male dominance is taken largely for granted; anything “other” is shown as exotic.

But, I have some problems with the “long-nineteenth century” idea. As a historical tool, it is useful, but also limiting. It can quickly become a sort of “meme,” or slogan, which is used uncritically and blinds one to the different ways in which change and continuity exist side-by-side. So, before we get too attached to it, I’d like to mention some of my criticisms.

The first problem is that it is powerfully Euro-centric. It’s true that during the period under discussion, European economic-military-political power meant that Europe had a disproportionate effect on the rest of the world, but it wasn’t the whole world. A lot of people weren’t even living in the nineteenth century by European standards, whether long or short. I think this derives from the fact that Hobsbawm was a Marxist. For him, Europe’s economic power meant it was the driving force of “progress” in the world, and all other forms of history (intellectual, cultural, etc) would be subservient to economic necessity.

That’s the key to my second criticism, which is that it privileges certain kinds of history over others. From a women’s history point of view, maybe the “long nineteenth century” ended when women got the vote, which would be different years in different places (1893 in New Zealand, 1918 in the UK, 1945 in France, 1984 in Liechtenstein, and 2005 in Kuwait). From a labor history point of view, maybe it ends when collective bargaining becomes an accepted practice (harder to date).

Since we’re dealing with film, an aspect of cultural history, I’d like to suggest a different outlook: The advent of motion pictures is the start of the twentieth century for our purposes. Look at how rapidly things change in the 25-year-span of the movies I’ve reviewed. We go from simple experiments in showing motion to epic feature films in just that time. Imagine working in an industry in which standards and expectations are shifting so fast. Actually, you probably don’t have to imagine it, because it’s completely normal, now. Everyone who can remember working twenty five years ago remembers land lines, typewriters, and print encyclopedias (and probably smoking at work). That kind of change had already started, at least for people in the cultural industry of film, one hundred years ago today.

Shooting Captured Insurgents (1898)

Shooting_Captured_Insurgents_

In April of 1898, the United Stated went to war with Spain, and the face of American cinema changed forever. Suddenly, instead of showing amusing snippets of daily life or panoramas of interesting locations, the movies were showing “news,” depicting important events “as they happened,” and showing American troops in the most positive light. Even outside the US, Georges Méliès made a movie depicting the sunken USS Maine, a catalyst for the conflict. This movie claims to document the execution of prisoners in Cuba, which made me think it might be the first “Faces of Death” movie. I quickly realized, however, that it was staged (which is appropriate, actually for “Faces of Death”). The next movie on the LOC’s website, “Cuban Ambush,” is shown at exactly the same location and camera-angle, and the coincidence of the two events occurring in the same place, without so much as a repositioning of the camera, is too incredible to be believed. I suspect audiences at the time were not aware of this, even if they did see the movies at the same time; they were not used to “reading” film critically the way we do today. What I wonder about is their reaction: Shock? Digust? Cheering? Were they respectfully silent toward the fallen enemy? Or were they glad to see justice done?

Director: William Heise

Run time: 22 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1909)

A_Midsummer_Night's_Dream_(1909_film)

This is the first American attempt to interpret Shakespeare that I know about. Unlike the ambitious British efforts I’ve reviewed before, they took Shakespeare’s lightest, most accessible comedy, and gave it a child-friendly treatment. At just over 11 minutes long, it doesn’t get into a lot of the plot complications, and there’s no effort at all to utilize Shakespearean language for the intertitles. Each scene begins with a forward-facing intertitle to tell the audience how to interpret the action, albeit the first one that sets the action is rather complicated (as is the plot of the play, if you think about it). The static camera frames everything in long-shots, and most of the characters are hard to tell apart, although Bottom is quite memorable and over-the-top, as he should be (he also has about the least convincing ass’s head I’ve ever seen). Puck, the fairie, gets most of the effects (and also the skimpiest outfit), which are generally simple appearances and disappearances, with one flying scene that reminded me of “The Dream of a Rarebit Fiend.” Again, I’m inclined to read this as being intended for an audience that was either already familiar with the play, or as an introduction for younger viewers that showed them the light side of Shakespeare without the heavy language.

Directed by: Charles Kent, J. Stuart Blackton

Starring: Willaim V. Ranous, Maurice Costello

Run Time: 11 Minutes

You can watch it for free: here (silent) or here (with music)

What Demoralized the Barber Shop (1897)

What Demoralized the Barber Shop

This little clip from the days of film’s “innocent” youth gives us a chance to look at the development of what would become known as the “male gaze” in cinema. A group of men are in a barbershop, situated in a basement. The camera is framed to allow us to see up the stairs to the street. Suddenly, two pairs of feminine legs become visible. The women face one another, tugging their dresses upward, while the men below break into “pandemonium” at the sight of their ankles and shins. The viewer is treated to the view of disembodied female body-parts, and to a comedic over-representation of his own (presumed) reaction. The men are portrayed as having no control over their sexuality or behavior, while the women are oblivious to what is happening below their feet. Modern viewers will be especially amused that it is simply ankles that create the reaction in this early piece of deliberate titillation, although of course the folks at Edison were aware of how far they could go before there was a police raid on the Black Maria. As time went on, movies would inspire a great deal of debate over censorship, morality, and the gender order, but this example demonstrates how early some of the standards were set.

Director: William Heise

Run time: 48 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.

Black Diamond Express (1900)

Black Diamond Express

This movie gives me an opportunity to talk about remakes, because it is a double remake. It is an American remake of the French film “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat,” which thrilled audiences by showing them a train’s approach at a close angle, producing the illusion of being in its path while sitting in the theater. But, it’s also a remake of itself: the print we have was shot because the original print wore out, and Edison’s men had to go back out to the location and re-shoot it, a lesson in the importance of film preservation. Today, a lot of film buffs are disparaging about remakes, failing to realize that the way cinema has developed and grown has always been through riffing on common themes, borrowing from other filmmakers and paying homage to the past while looking ahead. This movie was no exception. It was a huge hit for Edison, and probably contributed to the realization that movies were not a minor curiosity, but a major entertainment medium with a future. It’s interesting that trains were such a popular subject for the early movies, but it also makes sense. The railroad had transformed the world within the lives of people, in much the way that the Internet has 100 years later, people were fascinated by trains, even as they were apprehensive about their speed and power.

Run Time: 27 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.

Dickson Experimental Sound Film (1895)

DicksonFilm_Still

I don’t think any of the original Surrealists ever got to see this, but I suspect that they would have loved it. A man stands in front of a huge horn, a stool behind him unused. He plays a slow, repetitive piece on the violin. Two men without jackets hold one another and dance in circles to the music. At the end, another man, looking sort of like a sailor, comes into view, looking like he plans to take the stool, and then the picture cuts off. None of this was intended to produce the weird effect that it has; it was simply an early attempt to make a film with sound, one that didn’t work out well, because lining up the phonograph to play at the same speed as the film never quite worked. The dancing men are most probably there because it was felt that more movement was needed, and because there weren’t any women at Edison Studios at the time. Despite that, this movie has gained the nickname “The Gay Brothers” among modern viewers, who of course read contemporary agendas into unfamiliar images. It was almost thirty years until synchronized sound became a reality, once again changing film history forever.

Director: W.K.L. Dickson

Starring: W.K.L. Dickson

Run Time: 21 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.

The Tempest (1908)

Tempest

This short attempt to bring the Bard to the screen is rather more ambitious than the previous decade’s “King John.” It not only attempts to tell the complete story of one of Shakespeare’s most fantasy-filled stories in only twelve minutes, it even attempts to backfill the story for the audience by going back to Prospero’s arrival on his island, the taming of Caliban and the discovery of Ariel. Each scene is told in a single intertitle followed by a brief period of action, ranging from a few seconds to perhaps two minutes. Magical effects are managed, as per the works of Georges Méliès, by in-camera trickery. This may be the most Méliès-like version of Shakespeare I’ve seen, although there is a seriousness of tone and slowness of pace in comparison to his better-known works. It seems to have been intended for an audience that was familiar with the story; I find it hard to believe that people would follow the subplots of Antonio and Caliban based on what we see here (unless some of it is missing), but it does have a child-like quality that suggests that perhaps it was intended as a way for parents to bring their children to see Shakespeare in shortened version, before submitting them to an entire performance.

Director: Percy Stow

Run Time: 12 Min

You can watch it for free: here.