Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Month: December, 2014

In the Land of the Head Hunters (1914)

In the Land of the Head Hunters

AKA “In the Land of the War Canoes”

This film about the Kwakwaka’wakw people of British Columbia is, according to Wikipedia, the oldest surviving film made in Canada. It is not truly a documentary, although it was made by an ethnologist and is a document of some aspects of the lives of Canadian First Nations people. However, it has a storyline written by its (white) director, Edward S Curtis, and which the actors clearly understood to be fictional. All of the actors are genuine Kwakwaka’wakw, so it’s a rather unusual mixture of truth and illusion – just as most documentaries are, I suppose. The story involves a young warrior who falls in love with a girl promised to an evil sorcerer, and how he and his tribe fight the sorcerer and his relations in order to free the young couple to marry. It is interesting to note that neither side consists of classically Western “individuals,” they all depend on their social group to achieve their ends. Also interesting are the clear depictions of rituals, costumes, and carvings such as those on the canoes, all of which are quite exotic compared to what one sees in Hollywood Westerns of the time. The movie was apparently a failure financially, either because audiences weren’t receptive or because of bad distribution. I wonder how descendents of these people feel about this movie today: is it a valuable document or another example of exploitation?

Director: Edward S Curtis

Camera: Edward S Curtis

Cast: Maggie Frank, Stanley Hunt

Run time: 40 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Advertisements

Mabel’s Strange Predicament (1914)

Mabel's Strange Predicament

This early Chaplin movie has a lot more of the elements we associate with him than the ones I’ve been reviewing in recent days. He’s in his classic “Little Tramp” getup, although it seems to me that his mustache is a bit larger on his lip than it would be in years to come. He’s doing a “funny drunk” bit, with pratfalls and slapstick being the source of most of the humor, and he’s chasing the ladies, in this case with little success. Mabel Normand, who got “top billing” (in the sense that her name is in the title), is one of the girls he chases, and she winds up hiding under the bed of a hotel neighbor, leading to various romantic complications with Charlie, the neighbor’s wife, and her boyfriend. The husband and wife are Alice Davenport and Chester Conklin, who each had small roles in “Making a Living” and Wikipedia identifies one of the bellboys as Al St. John, but this may be as controversial as in the case of “Mabel’s Blunder,” so I won’t say for sure. While the rest of the cast are funny, it’s clear from this movie that Chaplin was the up-and-comer on the Keystone lot at the time.

Director: Mabel Normand

Camera: Enrique Juan Vallejo and Frank D. Williams

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Mabel Normand, Alice Davneport, Chester Conklin

Run Time: 12 Min

You can watch it for free here or here.

Making a Living (1914)

Making_a_Living

This film actually comes before Chaplin’s appearance as “the Little Tramp” in “Kid Auto Races at Venice.” Chaplin wears a similar outfit, with cane and baggy pants, but he has a stovepipe top hat, a long grey coat, and a large mustache with a more villainous look to it, similar to his appearance in “Mabel at the Wheel.” He is an unemployed man who tries to panhandle a reporter (played by director Henry Lehrman) before hitting on the reporter’s girlfriend (Virginia Kirtley, also in “Mabel’s Dramatic Career” and “A Flirt’s Mistake”). They fight, and he manages to scoop the reporter by stealing one of his photographs and rushing it to press, then running out and selling copies of the paper himself. In the process, several run-ins and chases take place, including a woman (Minta Durfee, who was in “Fatty Joins the Force” and “The Knockout”) with a jealous husband, and several Keystone Kops, who wind up chasing Lehrman, while Charlie gets into yet another fight with the husband. Interestingly, this is a much more complex and sophisticated film than “Kid Auto Races,” which essentially used ad-lib comedy and an exciting location to carry the film, while this is scripted and employs varied camera angles, tight editing, and even a traveling shot of Charlie running down the street (presumably the camera was mounted on a car in front of him).

Director: Henry Lehrman

Camera: Enrique Juan Vallejo and Frank D Williams

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Henry Lehrman, Minta Durfee, Virginia Kirtley

Run Time: 9 Min

You can watch it for free: here or here.

Mabel’s Blunder (1914)

Mabels Blunder

This is the one Mabel Normand movie from 1914 I’ve seen which does not also star Charlie Chaplin. It’s not slapstick, but more of a situational comedy along the lines of “Troublesome Secretaries.” Mabel is in love with her co-worker, the son of the boss, but the boss is also sweet on her. When she thinks her beau is cheating on her, she switches clothes with her brother so she can spy on him. The boss sees her brother in her clothes, and mistakes him for her, asking her out to the same place the younger man has taken the mysterious other woman. Hilarity ensues when Mabel’s boy thinks she (as a man) is hitting on his sister, the girl who Mabel was jealous of, and when the boss’s wife catches him out with a boy dressed up as a girl. Overall, I don’t find the situational style of silent comedy holds up as well as the more physical approach, because there’s too much guessing what’s being said by whom, but this movie does invite some interesting speculations on the use of gender in comedy. As in Shakespeare’s time, the idea of men and women switching roles is an opportunity for confusion and laughter, which is resolved when everyone resumes his or her proper biological role. This sort of comedy still works today, suggesting that the gender order remains strong.

Director: Mabel Normand

Producer: Mack Sennett

Starring: Mabel Normand, Al St. John, Charles Bennett, Charley Chase

Run Time: 18 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz (1914)

Scarecrow

This third film by the Oz Film Manufacturing Company is the closest they ever came to producing a silent version of “The Wizard of Oz.” Strangely, what’s missing is a lot of the plot motivation – most of the characters lack the clear goals we are familiar with from the 1939 version, and so much of the story just involves people wandering around an enchanted wood for no apparent reason. It reminded me somewhat of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” for that reason, and also because various people fall in love with the wrong person or are turned into animals. We do get Dorothy (played by Violent MacMillan, who finally got to be a girl for once), the Tin Man (Pierre Couderc, who had been the Patchwork Girl), the Cowardly Lion (Fred Woodward, who also turns up in his familiar mule costume), the Wizard himself, a witch called Mombi, and, of course, the Scarecrow. The Lion was also odd, because he never seemed very cowardly to me charging at cavalry brigades, storming castles and so forth, although he failed to climb a ladder, so maybe he’s afraid of heights. The title is basically a spoiler for the end of the film, and again we get various creative Méliès-style effects and magical creatures dancing and pantomiming along the way.

Director: J. Farrell MacDonald

Produced and Written by L. Frank Baum

Camera: James A. Crosby

Starring: Violet MacMillan, Pierre Couderc, Fred Woodward, Mildred Harris, Vivian Reed

Run time: 58 Min

You can watch it for free: here or here.

Magic Cloak of Oz (1914)

Magic Cloak of Oz

Due to the box office failure of “Patchwork Girl of Oz,” this movie lost its distribution deal from Paramount Pictures and was only released, in modified form, in 1917. I suppose that should disqualify it from nomination for any Century Awards, but I don’t feel I have to be as picky as the Academy is. It does seem somewhat less effective to me, in that where “Patchwork Girl” was accessible to small children by having few intertitles and clear on-screen action, this movie had a lot of intertitles, and would require an adult or older child to explain it to a pre-literate child. Another interesting difference is that “Patchwork Girl” was divided into several discrete “parts” or chapters, while this is one continuous storyline. Again, Violet MacMillan returns in the role of a boy, this time one who is randomly chosen as king of “Noland,” a city which is assaulted by Rolly Rogues and by the witch-queen Zixi. Fortunately his (or her) sister, played by Mildred Harris (who later worked with Griffith on his remake of “Enoch Arden” and “Intolerance”) has inherited a magic cloak from the fairies. Also fortunately, their loyal mule Nickodemus gathers an effective fighting force from the animals of the forest and does most of the magic cloak’s work for it.

Director: J. Farrell MacDonald

Writer/Producer: L. Frank Baum

Camera: James A. Crosby

Starring: Violet MacMillan, Mildred Harris, Fred Woodward, Juanita Hansen.

Run Time: 41 Min

You can watch it for free: here or here.

Patchwork Girl of Oz (1914)

Patchwork Girl of Oz

Twenty five years before Judy Garland, L. Frank Baum himself was involved in the production of several “Oz” films, through a company called “The Oz Film Manufacturing Company.” Although the movies were not successful, Baum must be seen as smart to try to cash in on the new medium, at a time when producers were eagerly grabbing up (or stealing) written content to serve as storylines. This was the first of his books the company adapted, and it relies on pantomime and slapstick, and a few Méliès-style special effects, to create the atmosphere of his imaginary kingdom. There are few intertitles, but we do get camera movement and intercutting between scenes. The “girl” of the title is played by a man (French acrobat Pierre Couderc), while the main Munchkin “boy” is played by an adult woman (Violet MacMillan, who made her name as the “Cinderella Girl” for having children’s size 11 feet). There is other gender-bending in the cast as well, and all the gender-identified women fall in love with a miniature statue of one of the only males played by a man who is neither old nor deformed. Harold Lloyd and Hal Roach, who went on to make many great comedies together, met on this film, each of them in the ethnic-caricature role of a “Tottenhot.” Ozma of Oz, the Scarecrow, and the Tin Man all make appearances near the end.

Director: J. Farrell MacDonald

Writer/Producer: L. Frank Baum

Camera: James A. Crosby

Starring: Violet MacMillan, Pierre Couderc, Fred Woodward, Harold Lloyd, Hal Roach

Run Time: 48 Min

You can watch it for free: here or here.

By the Sun’s Rays (1914)

By the Suns Rays

With the clock ticking here at the end of 2014, I’m trying to get ready for “awards season,” watching as many 1914 films as I can in order to better pick the nominations for the Century Awards. This movie is apparently the earliest known film Lon Chaney (who would later be best known for the impressive makeup of his monster roles, such as he played in “The Phantom of the Opera” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”). Here, he’s a deliciously evil villain, feeding intelligence from the bank to a gang of bandits so that they can rob stagecoaches full of gold while making time with the heroine, Agnes Vernon (also in “Bare-Fisted Gallagher” and “A Miner’s Romance”). When our hero (Murdock McQuarrie, who I found pretty forgettable, though he had an extensive career, including a role in Chaplin’s “Modern Times”) shows up, the girl quickly gravitates to him and Chaney winds up exposed for the scoundrel he is, of course. There appears to be some dispute about who directed the movie: archive.org says it was Tod Browning (who would later direct many of Chaney’s best films, as well as “Dracula” and “Freaks”), while Wikipedia and imdb both claim it was one Charles Giblyn, about whom I know nothing, and The Silent Era simply says it is “unknown.” I wouldn’t dare t guess, but it doesn’t have any tell-tale signs of Browning’s later genius, if it is him.

Director: ? (See above)

Starring: Lon Chaney, Agnes Vernon, Murdock McQuarrie

Run Time 11 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Ingeborg Holm (1913)

Hilda Borgstrom

Actress Hilda Borgström

I suppose that, like most American film buffs, I have a myopic view of Swedish cinema. Or, more accurately, I have a view of Swedish cinema that is dominated by a single name: BERGMAN. Thus, it never occurred to me that a silent movie from Sweden would be anything but an obvious influence on Bergman’s style. This movie, however, seems to have a lot more in common with the work of D.W. Griffith than Ingmar Bergman. Visually, it could take place in any “western” city; only one brief scene in which the protagonist runs through a field to see her child takes advantage of the Swedish landscape, and everyone except the farmer’s wife who fosters the child is in “modern” urban clothing. Having hinted, I suppose I should comment a bit on the plot: It’s a fairly typical (for 1913) morality play about a woman whose husband dies and is forced to enter the workhouse, losing her children along the way. The message was meant to be that services for the needy should be improved, and apparently it contributed to debate about the need for a better social safety net, helping to lead to the current Swedish welfare state. It’s worth noting, however, that the many similar movies in the US didn’t have as much effect, suggesting that cultural differences cause different responses to media.

Director: Victor Sjöström

Camera: Henrik Jaenzon

Starring: Hilda Borgström

Run Time: 1 hr, 12 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

November and December, 1914

The 1914 "Christmas Truce" as depicted in a British magazine, January 1915.

The 1914 “Christmas Truce” as depicted in a British magazine, January 1915.

Due to a major paying project last month, I fell behind on this unpaying blog. I didn’t even get around to the news roundup for November, 1914. So, I’m going to combine November and December into a single post this time out. Without further ado…

November 1914

Politics: On November 24, Benito Mussolini is expelled from the Italian Socialist Party. A school-teacher by trade, Mussolini has worked his way up the ranks of the Party and has been very successful as the editor of Avanti! (“forwards”), the party newspaper. He is expelled for disagreeing with the party line on neutrality in World War One, and he will soon begin a campaign for militarization and joining the war on the Allied side.

Diplomacy: Britain and France declare war on Turkey on November 5. The UK annexes the island of Cyprus, holding on to it until 196o, using it as a base in both World Wars, and recruiting Greek Cypriots to fight for the Allies.

Finance: The Federal Reserve Bank of the US opens on November 16.

War: US troops vacate Veracruz, Mexico, November 23, allowing Venustiano Carranza’s troops to occupy the city and establish it as his headquarters.

December 1914

Law and Order: On December 17, President Woodrow Wilson signs the Harrison Narcotics Act into law, making cocaine and opiates illegal to sell or distribute, except under highly regulated medical exceptions. The immediate effect is to squeeze the supply of these drugs into the United States, driving the price up and creating a highly profitable criminal market, as well as forcing many addicts to suffer withdrawal due to inability to feed their addiction.

World War I: This is the December of the famous “Christmas Truce” on the Western Front. British and German soldiers crossed no man’s land between the trenches to exchange gifts and goodwill, and engage in football matches together. This symbolic moment of mutual respect and gallantry does not characterize the nature of trench warfare in general, and it is never repeated on such a scale during the war.

Industry: On December 15, a gas explosion at the Mitsubishi Hojyo coal mine in Japan kills 687 workers, the worst coal mine disaster in Japanese history.

Finance: On December 12, the New York Stock Exchange re-opens after more than four months of closure due to the war.

Films released in the last two months of the year include “Tillie’s Punctured Romance,” “His Prehistoric Past” (the last movie Charlie Chaplin will make for Mack Sennett at Keystone Studios) and two “Perils of Pauline” clones: “The Hazards of Helen” and “The Exploits of Elaine,”

Born: Dorothy Lamour (the “sarong queen” of “Jungle Princess” and several Hope & Crosby “Road” movies) , December 10; Larry Parks (who played Al Jolson in “The Jolson Story” and “Jolson Sings Again” before being blacklisted as a former Communist), December 13; Richard Widmark (a diversely talented actor, mostly remembered for playing off-balance villains in film noir movies like “Night and the City” and “Kiss of Death”), December 26; Jo Ann Fleet (who was Cathy Ames in “East of Eden” and also Paul Newman’s mother in “Cool Hand Luke”), December 30.

Died: Stellen Rye, the German director of “The Student of Prague” died on November 14, as a prisoner of war in a French prison.