Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Month: November, 2014

Last Days of Pompeii (1913)

This probably wasn’t the “first disaster film” – I haven’t researched it, but I recall several 1890’s movies about the sinking of the battleship Maine that might deserve that title. However, it was an early example of a feature film in which a disaster plays a major role in the plot. Unlike a more modern disaster movie, you don’t get the disaster as means of heightening the tension early in the film, but rather in the form of a Deus ex Machina that resolves all the problems at the end. It also presages “Cabiria” somewhat, being an Italian feature-length movie, set in ancient times, which tries to show an epic sweep of life and death, victory and defeat, comedy and tragedy. It isn’t quite as successful, being mostly stuck in a simple love triangle (or quadrangle) involving the myopic but heroic Glaucus, his lady Jone, his blind slave Nidia, and an Egpytian Priest named Arbace. Arbace covets Jone, and Nidia secretly loves Glaucus, but ultimately sacrifices himself for his happiness. The movie is based on a novel, which has been remade many times, probably with more impressive special effects, though for the limitations of a hundred years ago, I thought the red-tinted destruction scenes at the end did a good job of conveying pandemonium.

Directors: Mario Caserini, Eleuterio Rodolfi

Starring: Fernanda Negri Pouget, Ubaldi Stefani.

Run Time: 1 hr, 27 Min.

You can watch it for free: here.

Virginian, The (1914)


This was Cecil B. DeMille’s second movie, coming only months after “The Squaw Man,” and it’s also a Western starring Dustin Farnum as a transplant to the West who bests all comers and upholds his dignity and honor. I found it rather less interesting by comparison. The Indians are there simply as handy adversaries to stymie the hero in his work, and the female character (an eastern schoolmarm) is a pretty bland romantic interest with little motivation or personality of her own. There’s an odd “day for night” bit in the middle of the movie – one shot is shown lit by a campfire in what seems to be real night, while other scenes, edited around it to appear simultaneous, are obviously shot during the daytime. I wonder how audiences read that at a time when night shooting was comparably rare, and most movies simply used the convention of showing everything by daylight because that’s all cameras could pick up. Anyway, our hero is something of a bully and even winds up lynching his best friend in the name of justice, but the film does end with the classic gunfight in the dusty street, and probably did help establish the visual standards of the genre, to say nothing of establishing DeMille as a major player in the medium.

Director: Cecil B. DeMille

Camera: Alvin Wyckoff

Starring: Dustin Farnum, William Elmer, Winifred Kingston

Run Time: 54 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Gertie the Dinosaur (1914)


After the sophistication of “How a Mosquito Operates,” I was a bit disappointed that Winsor McCay’s next animation film started off with another live-action wraparound story, which is essentially the same as that for “Little Nemo:” his friends bet him that he can’t animate a dinosaur. Apparently he chose a dinosaur as a subject because people had accused him of working from photographs to make the mosquito. But, once Gertie emerged from her cave, all was forgiven – she is the most lovable and fun of all the characters he created for these movies so far. The film was originally made to be shown without the wraparound; McCay showed it as part of live performances, and he would give Gertie the instructions that we read today on the intertitles, and Gertie would appear to respond to him. Gertie is a bit antiquated, being a Brontosaurus (a type of dinosaur we now know never existed), but that doesn’t really make a difference for cartoon purposes, and McCay gets around the scientific objection that their mouths were too small to feed their stomachs by having Gertie devour an entire tree in one gulp. Happily, she’s here to stay, the movie has been preserved by the National Film Registry.

Also known as: “Gertie,” “Gertie, the Trained Dinosaur,” “Gertie, a Dinosaur.”

Director: Winsor McCay

Starring: Winsor McCay, George McManus

Run Time: 12 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

How a Mosquito Operates (1912)


As a followup to “Little Nemo,” Winsor McCay produced this animated short for Vitagraph Studios. Although the version I’ve found lacks color, it still has a number of things the preceding movie lacked, notably a sense of story and character. Where the point of “Little Nemo” seems just to be demonstrating that drawings can move around on film, this movie demonstrates animation’s potential as entertainment. A giant mosquito follows a man into his room and then proceeds to drink while he attempts to sleep, each sting causing the beast’s abdomen to swell with blood. Finally, it is so engorged that it cannot fly or even stand up without losing its balance. Taking a final drink, it suddenly explodes at the end. It’s somewhat disturbing, certainly compared to the innocent subject matter of most live-action films of the time, but obviously whimsical and humorous, and sticks to McCay’s theme of dreams and sleep. The whole thing is based on a comic strip he had written previously, and it is all done in fairly simple line-drawings, but with considerable attention to movement and perspective. This was the one McCay film recommended in the BFI’s “100 Silent Films” book.

Also Known as: “The Story of a Mosquito”

Director: Winsor McCay

Run time: 6 Min

You can watch it for free: here or here.

Little Nemo (1911)


So far, in my exploration of early movies, I haven’t talked at all about early experiments in animation. That ends today, with the addition of the first known film by Winsor McCay, who also wrote the comic strip that “Dream of a Rarebit Fiend” was based on. This movie is based on his best-known and most beloved strip, “Little Nemo in Slumberland,” which was about a boy who dreamt wild and wonderful things each night, and awoke in the last panel of each episode. The movie, however, doesn’t really do much with that theme, and is more about the process of animation. Most of it is live-action sequences in which McCay bets his friends he can make drawing move, collects prodigious amounts of paper and ink, and then toils away at drawing each individual picture. Finally, at the end, we get a brief animated sequence (with some hand-colored sections, in the version I watched) in which characters from “Little Nemo” dance, fight, and interact with each other. A good deal of the screen time is taken up by watching McCay draw his famous characters – sometimes with his hand visible, in a slightly fast-motion live action, and sometimes through “animation” (no hand visible). It’s safe to say that this served mostly as a way for McCay to convince Vitagraph that the technology and interest existed to make this worth pursuing further.

AKA: Winsor McKay, the Famous Cartoonist of the New York Herald and his Moving Comics

Director: Winsor McCay

Camera: Walter Arthur

Starring: Winsor McKay, John Bunny, George McManus

Run Time: 11 Min, 33 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.

Squaw Man (1914)

Squaw Man

In spite of the gender-bending title, this is neither a story of an Indian girl who becomes a man, nor a man who becomes a squaw. Rather, it is the story of a dishonored white nobleman who marries an Indian woman, and as such is an opportunity for commentary on race, gender, and class, all through the lens of “honor” as it was understood at the time. Predictably, the resolution involves the death of the unfortunate squaw, and the white man’s restoration to his proper civilized context, although apparently their child (conceived out of wedlock) is due to be raised as the “next Earl of Kerhill.” This was Cecil B. CeMille’s first outing as a director, and also the first feature film to be shot in the area of California later designated “Hollywood.” The story behind it is nearly as interesting as the picture on the screen, and it also represents a pretty impressive debut at a time when movies were generally made as simply as possible. I was impressed by the angled closeup used to demonstrate a pickpocket at work, the use of splitscreen to show a flashback, and the (real) locomotives that were integrated into the town saloon/railroad station set. The story, which seems obscure today, was derived from a popular novel which had several successful stage adaptations.

Director: Cecil B. DeMille

Camera: Alfred Gandolfi

Starring: Dustin Farnham, Red Wing, Monroe Salisbury.

Run Time: 1 Hour, 12 Mins.

You can watch it for free: here or here.