Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Month: May, 2014

Those Awful Hats (1909)

Those_Awful_Hats

This early short from Biograph is both a comedy and an informational promo. It shows a small audience in a Nickelodeon-style theater watching a movie. One at a time, several fashionably-attired women enter and find seats near the front. Each wears a hat which is adorned with a floral bouquet, and soon it is impossible for anyone to see the screen because of them. Towards the end, a giant claw descends from the ceiling and removes, first one of the hats, then one of the women! The audience applauds and the final intertitle states “Ladies will please remove their hats,” making this 3-minute reel an ideal opener for a program of shorts, equivalent to the “Let’s All Go to the Lobby” cartoon or reminders to turn off cell phones in later years. Sharp-eyed viewers will notice that an “AB” logo at the front of the picture, near the on-screen movie screen. This was how movie producers were protecting their copyright at the time, I believe it started at Edison Studios: they would have a physical logo planted somewhere obvious on each set they shot. It’s sort of like the watermarked-logos we see on television stations today, except that it actually was a physical object. Mack Sennett, who would go on to found Keystone Studios, is one of the featured patrons.

Directed by: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Mack Sennett

Run Time: 3 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Perils of the New Land: Films of the Immigrant Experience (1910-1915)

Perils of the New Land

This will be a somewhat “mixed” review, because there were things I liked about this collection, and others I really didn’t care for. First, the entry on Worldcat says there’s a booklet included, but the version I came with no textual information at all; that’s a failure on Multnomah County Library’s part. Second, I was disappointed that 3 out of the five films on here were actually 1915, so there really isn’t much to the “1910-“ part of the time range. Finally, only one of the movies (“The Italian”) really has anything to do with the “immigrant experience,” and even that was really more about middle America’s view of immigrants. The good news is that the prints of these movies are of high quality, and there’s good piano scores on every one of them – I particularly liked the score on “Traffic in Souls,” which captures the tension perfectly. Finally, both “The Italian” and “Traffic in Souls” have very good commentary tracks by appropriate historians: Giorgio Bertellini for the former, Shelley Stamp for the latter. These are thoughtful, informative, and well-structured. I’m often disappointed by commentaries, which seem to be often created off-the-cuff without preparation, but it’s clear in this case that the historians made a real effort to create good, relevant material for the bonus track.

Worldcat Link: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/234175776

Traffic in Souls (1913)

Trafficinsouls

Despite the title and theme of prostitution, this is not an early example of exploitative titillation, but rather a pure melodrama. Produced by Universal Films while they were still located in Fort Lee, New Jersey, the movie takes good advantage of contemporary New York City locations (including the Battery and Ellis Island) to show the dangers young women faced in a society where “White Slavery” ran rampant. There are essentially two storylines, probably because the concept of a feature film was still new, one in which a pair of Swedish immigrant girls are lured into a false employment agency, to be rescued by a heroic cop acting alone, and one in which the sister of said cop’s girlfriend is lured by an extension of the same gang into a different brothel. That storyline is resolved when the first sister infiltrates the cover operation for the racket and gets incriminating evidence on Edison cylinder, followed by a massive police raid (I counted 16 men in uniform) and the arrest of the “respectable” wealthy man behind the whole thing. The movie ends with him being unable to enter the streets without encountering angry mobs and his uptight wife dying in bed of her shame. As tame and moralistic as all this seems now, it was tremendously controversial at the time, resulting in a ban on prostitution as an acceptable theme in film.

Director: George Loane Tucker

Starring: Jane Gail, Matt Moore

Run Time: 88 Min

You can see (most of) it free: here.

Police Force of New York City (1910)

Max Schmittberger, New York Police Inspector, 1910 (Library of Congress)

Max Schmittberger, New York Police Inspector, 1910 (Library of Congress)

This short from Edison may actually be a reissue of a 1904 film, judging by the opening title. It portrays the New York police in a variety of practice exercises, focusing on rescue and arrest operations. Many of them focus on chases of one sort or another – on horseback, motorcycle, or speedboat. There is also a section on the K9 division, for dog lovers. The boat arrest includes some obvious mock gunplay. The intertitle “stopping runaways in Central Park” actually refers to runway horses – showing how language and technology has changed over time, as well as the expected duties of the police. There is no attempt to provide characterization or narrative, we simply see single-shot depictions of the police training exercises. Locations seen include Central Park, the Hudson River near the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Riverside Park, and Broadway at 23rd Street, all of which have changed a great deal, making this an interesting historical document for architects and New Yorkers. As a depiction of the police, of course, it has to be seen as being what the Edison Studio believed people were interested in, as well as how the police themselves were comfortable being portrayed.

Director: James H. White

Run Time: 8 Min, 30 Seconds.

I haven’t found a free version of this online. If you find one, message me or comment!

May, 1914

Africans exhibited at the 1914 Jubilee Exhibition in Christiania (Oslo), Norway. Image from Oslo Museum,  licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Norway license.

Africans exhibited at the 1914 Jubilee Exhibition in Christiania (Oslo), Norway. Image from Oslo Museum, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Norway license.

Here’s a roundup of what took place during the month of May in 1914.

Politics: On May 1, President Yuan Shikai replaces China’s constitution with a new “consitutional compact,” giving himself dictatorial powers. He justifies this by pointing to the many corruptions and inefficiencies of democratic government in China.

Spectacle: In honor of the centenary of their Constitution, Norwegians hold a “Jubilee Exhibition” in Kristiana, opening on May 5. One of its major features is a “Kongo Village” in which native Africans could be seen. This was not the first time Africans had visited Norway, but it was a very rare opportunity for everyday Norwegians to encounter them in person and see their “exotic” lifestyle.

Women: On May 6th, the British House of Lords rejects Women’s Suffrage

Holidays: On May 14, President Woodrow Wilson signed a proclamation making Mother’s Day officially a national holiday.

Diplomacy: On May 17, the Protocol of Corfu was signed by the Albanian Government and the Provisional Government of Northern Epirus. This is another effort (see previous months) to stabilize the situation in Southeastern Europe subsequent to the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913, which had created various tensions between regional governments and minority populations. In this case, many Greeks living in Northern Epirus had rebelled against Albanian rule, leading to an agreement to limited autonomy, ratified in this document, which was never fully implemented, due to the outbreak of World War One later in 1914.

Business: On May 21, failed car salesman Carl Erick Wickman begins using his show car to transport workers in Hibbing, Minnesota to and from mines for 15 cents a ride. This is the birth of Greyhound Bus Lines.

Disasters: The ocean liner “Empress of Ireland” collides with the Norwegian vessal “SS Storstad” in the early hours of May 29 in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, leading to a loss of more than 1000 lives.

Opera: The opera Mârouf, savetier du Caire (Marouf, Cobbler of Cairo) by Henri Ribaud opens May 15 in Paris. This will be Ribaud’s most popular opera, based on a tale from The Arabian Nights and using “oriental” themes in the music.

Movies: The release of “The Master Mind” is May 11, and “Mr. Barnes of New York” is also in May, 1914.

Births: Tyrone Power, who would star in “The Mark of Zorro” and “The Black Swan” is born on May 5, and Lilli Palmer, later to appear in “Mädchen in Uniform” and “Body and Soul,” born on May 21.

Italian, The (1915)

George_Beban_(The_Italian)

OK, I admit, I goofed and watched this one a little early. Some source I read referred to this as a 1914 film, probably because it was shot in November, 1914, but it wasn’t actually in theaters until January, 1915 (hence, it would not qualify for a Century Award until next year). I have to say, though, this has me excitedly anticipating next year, because the technical sophistication of this film is far above anything I’ve reviewed so far. It’s also a powerful tear-jerker, telling the story of a hopeful young immigrant whose dreams are thwarted in the New World, and his determination to take revenge on the family of the man he thinks has wronged him. George Beban apparently had a previous successful career playing “ethnic” characters on stage, but this was his first break into movies. His portrayal is ultimately a caricature (emphasized by intertitles with typical Italian broken English), but it is sympathetic almost to a fault. No doubt producers at Paramount were aware that much of the audience for silent films came from immigrant groups, including many Italians, and a hateful portrayal would have worked against them. If you stop to think about it, the portrayal of Italians in later films, including “Marty” and “The Godfather” would be similarly stereotypical, but would nevertheless appeal to Italian Americans’ sense of identity.

Director: Reginald Barker

Starring: George Beban, Clara Williams

Run Time: 74 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Forgotten Films of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle (1913-1921, 2005)

Arbuckle-Roscoe-01

This collection of Arbuckle films includes only five actual Century Films (all reviewed on this blog), but four discs worth of his later work are included. This is quite an achievement, because few of his films had been preserved or restored until the team that made this got to work on it in the early 2000’s. The liner notes include some harrowing tales of making digital transfers literally as filmed originals disintegrated. In that sense, this is a great collection, that lives up to its name in remembering forgotten work.

As is often the case with these collections, its real strength is in the films themselves, which will please any fan of early slapstick and most film historians. Arbuckle really is impressive for being able to take the kinds of falls and other athletic moves he made, given his size and weight. And he’s a surprisingly likable slapstick star; whereas Chaplin at this time was often cast as an aggressor or even a villain, Arbuckle’s characters are lovable innocents. At worst, he occasionally portrayed a loving husband whose wandering eye got him in trouble, but ultimately came home to his sweetie.

The special features here include an extensive (36 pages) set of liner notes with multiple essays by film historians that add a good deal to the viewer’s understanding (if they take the time to read them). The fourth disc includes several movies directed by Arbuckle under a pseudonym after he was banned from acting. There’s also a slide show of Arbuckle caricatures and a music video, both of which are fun. And then there are commentaries, by three film historians, which I think could have been handled better. These were obviously done with no rehearsal or preparation, just three men in a sound booth watching a film. In some cases, not all of them have seen the movie being commented on before (a cardinal sin in my book), they wind up talking over each other, missing things, and correcting each other on historical mistakes, which is annoying.

As a final note on Arbuckle, I think I have to comment on the tragedy that ended his career; the death of Virginia Rappé after a party in his hotel room in 1921. There seem to be two camps: one dead-sure that Arbuckle raped her and possibly performed some bizarre act which ruptured her bladder, and another one dead-sure that he was totally innocent and got railroaded by the press . I find the arguments of both sides self-serving and unconvincing, and I suspect that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Either way, although he was acquitted of any crime, the event hit the media like a bomb and ended his career, resulting in the fact that even fans of silent comedy rarely have a chance to see his movies now. But, I’d also suggest that, either way, it no longer matters. They’ve both been in their graves so long that it really doesn’t matter what happened in that hotel room anymore, and there’s certainly no reason to deny oneself the pleasure of good Century Films over something that happened off-screen and unconnected to the movies ninety three years ago.

Worldcat Link: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/61710295

Leading Lizzie Astray (1914)

Leading Lizzie Astray

This comedy short stars and was directed by Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle during his tenure at Keystone Studios (we’ve seen Fatty already in “The Rounders” and “Fatty Joins the Force”). The premise is deceptively simple: Fatty is a powerfully strong “Country Boy” whose girl (Minta Durfee, who was married to Fatty in real life) is tempted away to the city by a slick character (Ed Brady, who was in “Sulivan’s Travels” and “The Man from Texas”) up to no good. Fatty pursues, and finding his girl being abused, takes revenge on the City Slicker and pretty much anyone else in range of his fists. But, as simple as this sounds, it involves a surprising number of set ups, a huge cast of Keystone regulars (including Mack Swain and Edgar Kennedy, both in “The Knockout” as well), multiple intertitles, and complex inter-cut editing. The whole thing is of course a satire on the “Lost Girl” melodrama which was popular grist for more serious filmmakers’ mills, but Fatty gives the audience the chance to identify with his sensitive and naïve portrayal of a middle-American man in love. The chaos he wreaks on the flashy city café and its clientele has to be seen to be believed: at one point he throws an assailant through a wall and for good measure throws a piano after him!

Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Starring: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Minta Durfee, Ed Brady, Edgar Kennedy, Mack Swain.

Run Time 12 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Knockout, The (1914)

Knockout_(poster)

A boxing ring is a natural site for slapstick, and Keystone brought together nearly all of its star power for this boxing-slapstick comedy. Fatty Arbuckle (from “Fatty Joins the Force” and “The Rounders”) stars as “Pug,” a large, innocent fellow with a yen for Minta Durfee (his real-life wife, also in “A Flirt’s Mistake” and “Fatty Joins the Force”). After several escapades with local tramps, he gets fast-talked into ten rounds against “Cyclone Flynn” (Edgar Kennedy, who was in “A Flirt’s Mistake” and “A Star is Born”). Charlie Chaplin (who also co-starred with Fatty in “The Rounders”) shows up about halfway through as the referee, Mack Swain (from “The Gold Rush” and “Tillie’s Punctured Romance“) is there as the gambler who threatens Fatty if he doesn’t win, and the Keystone Cops show up at the end, when everything has gone completely out of control. It’s a much larger cast and more elaborate scenario than usual in the shorts of the period, with substantially more intertitles, and the editing is tight and the camerawork imaginative as well. The funniest sequence by far is the actual match, in which Kennedy is just “straight” fighting, Fatty is clearly outclassed, but scared to lose, and Chaplin is desperately dodging the blows of the two other men, while trying to trip Fatty up in order to get the ordeal over with sooner.

Director: Mack Sennett

Starring: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Minta Durfee, Edgar Kennedy, Mack Sennett, Charlie Chaplin

Run Time: 27 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Flirt’s Mistake (1914)

A-flirts-mistake-1914

This is another of the classic Fatty Arbuckle movies from Keystone Studios. It has a simple premise: a philandering husband with a domineering wife (Minta Durfee, Arbuckle’s real-life spouse, who was also in “The Star Boarder” with Chaplin, and “The Rounders” with Chaplin and Arbuckle), and a case of mistaken identity that gives rise to a drawn-out chase and fight. In this case, poor fatty makes the mistake of hitting on a bearded Rajah (Edgar Kennedy, who would later play Daddy Warbucks in “Little Orphan Annie” and a memorable street vendor in “Duck Soup”), who, when seen from behind, appears to be in feminine garb (at least by Western standards). Now, in regard to early movies and race, this is not an especially (ahem) sensitive portrayal of Southeast Asian nobility, but the Rajah is so over-the-top that it’s hard to imagine anyone taking him seriously as a cultural stereotype. What’s more interesting to me is the gender-and-sexual-relations side of things. Fatty gets into trouble specifically because he crosses the gender barrier, and the problem arises from his inability to “read” the gender signals of another culture. His long-suffering wife doesn’t want him killed by the Rajah, but at the end, it’s clearly she who wears the pants and gives him a much-deserved dressing-down, despite his pleas for understanding.

Directed by: George Nichols

Starring: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Minta Durfee, Edgar Kennedy, George Nichols

Run Time: 8 Min

You can watch it for free: here.