Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

His Trust (1911)

His Trust

This early melodrama is a good example of why modern audiences can have a hard time with Griffith, and with early film in general. It has many of the same problems for us as “Birth of a Nation” does, although it is much shorter and refrains, at least, from glorifying the Ku Klux Klan. The subtitle alone: “The Faithful Devotion and Self-Sacrifice of an Old Negro Servant” is enough to set our teeth on edge, although “Negro” was not considered an insulting term at the time, nor even a few generations ago. “Servant” here is, of course, a euphemism for “slave,” as the movie is set in the South during the Civil War, a period that lived in the memory of the older and the myths of the younger generations at the time (it was as distant to them as the Kennedy assassination is to us today). The “servant” is played by a white man (Wilfred Lucas, also in “The Girl and Her Trust” and later “Modern Times” with Chaplin) in black face, another practice that is no longer acceptable. I would encourage viewers, not to ignore their sense of discomfort with this movie, but to regard it as evidence of an important shift in American history. One African American commentator on film I heard observed that stories like “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” were popular among black audiences of the time, because, in spite of the stereotypes, they at least suggested the possibility of noble action on the part of black people, and this movie falls into that category as well. Today, the stereotypes are no longer acceptable, and I’d say that’s a good thing, but this phase in history remains significant in understanding race in America.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Wilfred Lucas, Dell Henderson, Claire McDowell, Linda Arvidson, Mack Sennett, Charles West, Grace Henderson.

Run Time: 14 Min

You can watch it for free: here. (Along with the sequel, “His Trust Fulfilled”)

Cabbage Fairy (1896)

Cabbage Fairy

I know I’ve mostly been doing Griffith lately, but I stumbled across this little gem from the first nation of cinema while doing research tonight and couldn’t resist throwing it in. It’s listed as the debut work of French filmmaker Alice-Guy Blaché, and apparently was out before Méliès was able to get his first movie, “The Haunted Castle” on the screen. It is a simple tableaux, in which a woman in a flouncy dress moves about a cabbage patch, periodically taking babies out of the cabbages (one wonders if the “Cabbage Patch Kids” were invented here). Typical for the day, the camera is static, there is no editing, and the shot establishes a “stage” on which the action takes place. The filmmaker was a woman, often overlooked in film histories in spite of her long career and many contributions. Some have argued that this should be regarded as the “first fiction film,” and though I think that might be going too far, if she beat Méliès I’d be happy to consider it the first fantasy film. At one minute long it was also one of the longest movies of the day.

Original Title: La Fée aux Choux

Director: Alice Guy Blaché

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.