Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Month: June, 2014

Happy Times and Jolly Moments (1943)

Comedian Ben Turpin in 1914.

Comedian Ben Turpin in 1914.

This turned up on TCM yesterday, and since my ability to download movies is limited, I thought I’d make an exception and talk about it. It wasn’t made in 1914, but it claims to be about 1914 movies – in particular the movies of Mack Sennett Studios. It’s a look at how the movie audiences of nearly 30 years later recalled our period. It even includes a recreated look at a Nickelodeon Theater, including a kid reading the Intertitles aloud to his little brother, confirming some of my ideas about audiences of the time. One name you’d expect to hear in a retrospective on Keystone is Charlie Chaplin, but no dice here. I think Charlie had re-acquired the rights to all his old movies at this time, and wouldn’t have allowed it. So, instead, we get clips of Billy Bevan, Ben Turpin, and even Fatty Arbuckle (with no mention of the scandal that brought him down). There’s a brief flash of Mabel Normand, and we also see Gloria Swanson as a Sennett Bathing Beauty, although she’d have denied ever holding that title. The Keystone Kops are featured, but for some reason are called “policemen.” The new score is beautifully timed, but not really appropriate to the period, while the narration swings from annoying to interesting. I suspect a lot of the footage is post-1914 Keystone.

Written by: James Bloodworth

Run Time: 18 Min

Not available for free viewing at this time.

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Newark Athlete (1891)

Newark_Athlete_1891

Since I’m temporarily living with limited internet and even more limited access to classic DVDs, I’m taking the chance to revisit some of the very short films from the Age of Attractions. This is actually the earliest movie in the National Film Registry, which makes it pretty important in the history of American film. It was shot in the Black Maria and demonstrates the ability of the Kinetoscope to reproduce movement by showing a man in a gym uniform swinging a pair of things that look like bowling pins, but apparently are Indian Clubs. Although he’s identified as the “Newark Athlete,” he’s not really doing anything especially athletic, and I wonder if they really called a professional athlete all the way to the studio just to shoot ten seconds of him swinging his arms. It also strikes me that, like the boxers Dickson would later shoot for Edison, this man is rather more skimpily clad than one usually saw in the late-nineteenth century, and I wonder if the appeal of sex was already a factor even in these early days of the movies.

Director and Camera: W.K.L Dickson

Run Time:12 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.

Workers Leaving the Factory (1895)

Workers Leaving

This was the first movie that the brothers Lumière shot using their newly-developed camera, the Cinématographe, and it was among the first which they exhibited at the first proper projected screening of motion pictures. That doesn’t make it exactly the “first movie,” but it is certainly a highly historically significant film. What it shows is a group of people, as well as a dog and a horse-and-carriage, exiting a large indoor space via a set of doors. The workers are actually employees of the Lumières at their factory. It is both an “actuality” (or documentary film) and also a fiction; the workers are not actually leaving to go home, but rather simply being directed by Lumière to exit in order to provide movement. The shoot was probably done in the middle of their workday, and since three separate versions or remakes exist, it is apparent that they repeated the action several times, as in repeated takes. All of which simply demonstrates the close alliance between reality and fiction in film from the very earliest days. No film is ever wholly fantasy, since one has to make some sort of image in front of a camera to put on the screen, nor is any movie ever wholly spontaneous and “real.” And, of course, remakes are as old as film itself.

Alternate Titles: La Sortie des usines Lumière à Lyon, Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory in Lyon, Employees Leaving the Lumière Factory, Exiting the Factory.

Director: Louis Lumière

Camera: Louis Lumière

Run Time: 46 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.

Sprinkler Sprinkled (1895)

 

Lumiere

This short by the brothers Lumière is often identified as the world’s “first comedy” film. It may also be one of the first in which a situation is staged specifically for the camera. In this instance, a man is seen spraying water over some plants, while, unbeknownst to him, a child sneaks up to the hose and places his foot on it. The water stops, and the gardener’s first instinct is to look down the hose, at which point the boy lifts his foot and the water sprays into the man’s face. He then chases the boy and “chastises” him with a spanking. This has all the familiar elements of slapstick, including the smaller, playful hero getting the better of the sterner, larger victim, as well as the chase and the punishment. Of course, all of this pre-existed film in the form of vaudeville and pantomime, but the Lumières deserve some credit for seeing that it would work as well on a screen as on a stage, at a time when it hadn’t yet been established what “moving pictures” were really for. While it is simple and slight by our more sophisticated standards, this retains a naïve charm and pleasant simplicity.

Original Title: L’arroseur Arrosé

Director: Louis Lumière

Run Time: 46 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.

Billy Bitzer: His Story

Billy Bitzer

Worldcat Link: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/661668

I’ve made a point of including the name of Billy Bitzer in each of the reviews of the D.W. Griffith movies I’ve done this year. It’s sort of redundant: you’d be hard-pressed to find a Griffith picture where Bitzer wasn’t the cameraman. But, it seems important to me to honor the man who crafted the images that brought Griffith’s visions to life.

Today, cinematographers have a way of being ignored, in favor of the “auteur theory” that tells us that the real creative artist behind a movie is the director. Only occasionally does some film buff notice that certain Directors of Photography have certain styles and strengths, that they carry over from movie to movie, no matter who they’re working for.

But, in the early days of cinema, this distinction was less clear. The earliest movies are often directed and shot by the same person – Georges Méliès, for example, shot many of his own movies, when he wasn’t the star. After a while the division of labor began to make sense, even for directors who didn’t want to work in front of the camera: the director needed to be paying attention to what was happening and to give directions on the spot, while someone else turned the crank and checked focus. Cameramen (and it was usually men) slowly became the junior partners in the relationship.

But, in such a visual medium as the silent movie, I think their contribution remains pretty significant. Bitzer was the one who had to come up with technical ways to achieve the innovations that Griffith wanted to make possible. The freshness and originality of those early short films for Biograph is in part due to his efforts.

For that reason I thought I’d mention his autobiography, now long out of print. It was written in the process of preparing archival materials for the Museum of Modern Art, and never really got the attention or editing it deserved, but it’s the only record we have from a cinematographer of this period. Bitzer’s personality comes through clearly, as well as his humble estimation of his efforts, although by the time he was writing (1944) the techniques he had pioneered were the basis of a multi-million dollar industry. He’s more interested, really, in talking about Griffith’s genius, and the joy of working with his favorite actors, than in showing off for himself. The book includes several rare photographs from the early silent period and a remarkably comprehensive list of the movies, long and short, that Bitzer worked on.

Read my full review on Goodreads.

D. W. Griffith’s Biograph Shorts (1908-1913, 2002)

DW Griffiths Biograph Shorts

Worldcat Link: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/51260287

At the beginning of this project, I reviewed two other Griffith collections without spending much time on the specific movies therein. Since this collection largely overlaps with those two, and I’ve given each of the films a review now, I’m fairly well caught up on Griffith and can move on to other things soon. But first, I thought I’d discuss this set as a collection. It’s put out by Kino, who generally hold a high standard for prints and audio, which this collection lives up to. Most of the films are in very good condition, with a few understandably less perfect, but in general the image is better than what you get by following my “free” links. The music has been specifically written and timed to the movies, and there’s quite a bit of variety among them, which I think makes it easier to watch a lengthy collection of silent movies, including solo piano scores, organ, and pieces for several instruments.

The collection was produced and edited by David Shepard, a film preservationist with a strong background in film history, who I know has done several other DVDs I’ve seen, though I can’t recall them offhand. I was a bit disappointed, however, at the lack of commentary and contextual materials. There’s a short essay on the back cover, which gives a tantalizing hint of Shepard’s erudition, but no booklet or other written materials. The formatting of the discs is odd, also. The movies are roughly in chronological order, up to a point, but each disc divides them between two sections, with “Bonus Shorts” tucked in a separate area from the main films, although there’s no apparent reason to divide them. There’s no menu to allow you to navigate all the movies, either, so you have to dial through one at a time if you’re looking for a particular one. Each movie does have a nice “splash page” with a dummied-up poster made to look contemporary and with thumbnail previews – this was nice, but it still would have been nicer to have easier navigation.

On the whole, I think I’d recommend “Years of Discovery” more strongly for someone looking to get a sample of early Griffith, but this collection is a good one for completists or scholars who need to find good quality prints of specific films.

Battle at Elderbush Gulch (1913)

Battle_at_Elderbush_Gulch_Poster

This 2-reel Western wraps up my exploration of D.W. Griffith’s early shorts. Unlike “The Massacre” and other examples, this movie has no narrative of sympathy for Native Americans, using them as truly stereotypical villains – the poster seen above is vividly accurate, and could only be embellished if the “Indian” in the image had a half-eaten puppy in his mouth. The story is that two orphans (one of them is Mae Marsh, who appeared in “The New York Hat” and “Birth of a Nation”) arrive in a settlement town with their puppies, but are told by their strict uncle to leave them outside. One goes to see that they are OK, and finds two natives stealing them for a feast. The uncle comes to the rescue, and shoots one, who happens to be the chief’s son. This brings the whole tribe down on the village, and puts the one baby in town (its mother is Lillian Gish, from “The Mothering Heart” and “Intolerance”) into jeopardy, until the cavalry rides in. The baby is saved by one of the “waifs” and everyone seems happy at the end, despite the fact that the stinginess of one man has caused the deaths of dozens on both sides. It doesn’t seem to me that Griffith really needed the longer format to tell such a cliché story, although the battle scenes are undeniably impressive.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Mae Marsh, Lillian Gish, Alfred Paget, Robert Harron, Henry B. Walthall, Kate Bruce.

Run Time: 29 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Death’s Marathon (1913)

Blanche Sweet1

This short suspense piece by Griffith has a certain amount in common with “The Unseen Enemy.” Whereas there, we saw the telephone used to summon the hero to the rescue by motorcar, here wife Blanche Sweet (who we’ve seen in “The Massacre” and “The Painted Lady”) tries to talk hubby Henry B. Walthall (from “The Avenging Conscience” and “The Burglar’s Dilemma”) out of suicide while his friend and business partner Walter Miller (who was in “The Musketeers of Pig Alley” and “The Mothering Heart”) rushes to him with an automobile. The two were rivals for her heart prior, so there’s an added tension of whether Walter really wants to save Henry, and both are in trouble due to Henry’s gambling debts. On the whole, it seems that Griffith was trying to make a morality story about the foolishness of youth and wealth, but it doesn’t really come off as successfully as his more serious social message films, such as “The Usurer” or “Corner in Wheat.” What does stand out, again, is how far the film grammar has developed by this time, with shots in close up to establish intimacy and fast editing during the race to save his life.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Blanche Sweet, Henry B. Walthall, Walter Miller, Lionel Barrymore, Kate Bruce, Robert Harron, Alfred Paget.

Run Time: 15 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand

Last known photo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand prior to assassination, from Wikimedia Commons, attributed to Karl Tröstl.

Last known photo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand prior to assassination, from Wikimedia Commons, attributed to Karl Tröstl.

Last week in my news roundup, I mentioned the “trigger-event” for World War I offhandedly, and then moved on to other issues with a promise to return. It’s time now to talk about that fatal June 28, almost 100 years ago.

Earlier this year, my social media feeds were abuzz with speculations about how different the world would be if Franz Ferdinand hadn’t been assassinated. I believe there was a PBS or NPR program that started it, but it seems that the thing that got my intellectual crowd talking was a book called Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives! A World Without World War I. In general, historians like to avoid debates about “counterfactual” history, because it’s not possible to study what didn’t happen, only what actually did. Still, junior historian as I am, I’m going to go out on a limb and speculate about what would change if you invented a time machine, went back in time, and somehow stopped Gavrilo Princip from shooting Franz Ferdinand:

 

Absolutely nothing.

 

To put it bluntly, that assassination did not “cause” the war. It was simply the excuse that made it possible to engage a war that had many, many more causes. I would guess that preventing the assassination would delay the war by weeks or months, maybe even until early 1915, but it would not prevent it.

I want to be clear, also, that I’m not arguing that World War One was “inevitable.” Historians hate that word. There probably were ways to stop it, quite possibly even after the assassination of the Archduke, but it takes more to stop a war than just tweaking the details.

I’ve been trying to make this clear in previous context posts by talking about just how unstable the diplomatic situation in Europe was at this time. I’ve hinted at the First and Second Balkan Wars, which had left highly unsatisfactory treaty arrangements which several factions opposed. There’s also the First and Second Moroccan Crises, as well as other colonial conflicts, which refused to stay isolated in the colonies. There’s sporadic outbursts of violence among the decrepit empires, such as the Pogroms in Russia or the Greek genocide in Turkey. And there’s just the fact that Europe was divided very strangely, between various powers like the Habsburgs that couldn’t possibly represent the interests of most of the people they ruled, and that nationalistic ideologies had been spreading among the various minority populations for nearly a century. Finally, there’s that old standby “German aggression,” which I think has been overplayed at times, but it’s true that the Schlieffen Plan, which essentially outlined Germany’s invasion of France, had been proposed as early as 1892, and that historian Fritz Fischer claimed that the German government had definitely decided on war as early as December 1912.

What it all comes down to is that history is rarely if ever about the small-scale, easily understandable acts of individuals. Things like wars happen for more than one reason. If you find yourself thinking that you know for sure the one reason something happened in the past, quite possibly you’ve fallen for a conspiracy theory. I think that understanding this makes for a much richer study of history, one in which complex contingencies are accounted for, and constant subtle modifications are made to our reading of the historical record. That’s what makes it interesting to do something like experience film “as it happened” 100 years ago. I hope you continue to find it a worthwhile endeavor as well.

Mothering Heart (1913)

Mothering_Heart

This short melodrama by Griffith has certain elements of the “lost girl” melodramas of the period, and also demonstrates considerable technical sophistication, particularly in terms of camera angles and editing. Lillian Gish (we’ve seen her in several Griffith films at this point, including “An Unseen Enemy” and “The Musketeers of Pig Alley”) stars as a young woman with a “natural” mothering instinct, demonstrated by her affection for puppies and love of flowers. She is wooed, “against her better judgment,” as the intertitle says, by Walter Miller (also in “The Musketeers” and later “The Shadow of the Eagle,” with John Wayne), a young man struggling to make a living. Once he has a little success, he throws her over for a more exciting woman he meets in a restaurant/night club, and poor Lillian, pregnant, moves back in with her mother. The child becomes ill, and the husband realizes the error of his ways too late to prevent tragedy. The most remarkable scenes are those in the night club, where an Apache dance is performed. Rather than simply framing the whole thing as a stage, as would have been typical, Griffith’s cameraman shows us at least four different angles, editing them together to show the stage, close up action at two tables, and the whole place in a long shot. From what I’ve read about the technique of the time, it’s possible that they had two or three cameras running simultaneously to get this effect, similar to the way live television would be shot decades later.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Lillian Gish, Walter Miller, Kate Bruce, Charles West.

Run Time: 23 Min.

You can watch it for free: here.