Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Month: January, 2015

Salomy Jane (1914)

Salomy Jane-1914

This early Western was shot around the Bay Area and in the Redwood Forest, and makes good use of the landscape as an important feature of its story-telling. It takes place in the town of “Hangtown,” a city with few women, and the kind of saloon where everyone ducks when someone new comes in the door, in case shooting is about to break out. When and old man and his young daughter (Beatriz Michelena, a bit more on her in a moment) move to town, everyone takes an immediate interest – apparently the old man is from a family in Kentucky that had a feud with one of the local families, and the daughter is, well, a not-unattractive woman in a town full of men. Of course, a heroic man rescues her from a villainous one. The movie was meant as a breakout vehicle for Michelena, who had been acting and singing on stage since she was 11 and was married to local car dealer George Middleton, who promoted her as the next big thing. She never was that big, but she does go down in history as the first Latina movie star, and apparently this is the only surviving complete film of hers today. In this movie, they had her wear a large wig that seems to have been borrowed from Mary Pickford, and, to my mind, doesn’t work for her facial features.

Director: William Nigh & Lucius Henderson

Camera: Arthur Caldwell, Arthur Powellson, Hal Mohr

Starring: Beatriz Michelena, House Peters, William Pike

Run Time: 87 Min

I have been unable to find this for free online, please comment if you can find it.

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Before Hollywood There Was Fort Lee, N.J. (1912-1917, 1964, 2003)

Worldcat Link: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/53157428

This DVD collection is named for the 1964 documentary that heads it off, a nice early attempt at displaying the legacy of East Coast silent film production for a previous generation. The documentary is very American-centric, and gets several facts wrong, including calling “The Great Train Robbery” the “first narrative film” (!!!!). It also presents a few early movies with voice-over narration to explain the action, mostly as clips, but I believe the entirety of “The Lonely Villa” is embedded in the documentary. I wouldn’t choose to see it with the narrator, but it may work for some, and it’s reminiscent of the Japanese tradition of using a benshi to explain the movie to an audience. The narrator is eager to point out the proximity of shots and studios to the current location of the George Washington Bridge. In 1964, of course, the 19-teens were still living memory for some, and some stars they featured, like Gloria Swanson, were still living and acting. An essay included with the DVD covers much of the same ground, without the errors.

Apart from this, there are three films presented as features in the DVD. They are “The New York Hat” and “The Wishing Ring,” which I’ve reviewed separately, and “A Girl’s Folly,” which is from 1917 so hasn’t become a Century Film Yet. Evidently, it and the documentary are “abridged,” and incomplete, so they shouldn’t be the main reason for getting this. The two movies I have reviewed are presented in very high-quality remastered prints with good music scores added that clearly are timed to the movies. The main reason for this collection, as far as I’m concerned is “The Wishing Ring,” which should have been played up more by the distributors, but the other materials on here are of some interest as well.

Wishing Ring (1914)

Wishing Ring

Although shot in New Jersey, this early American feature claims to be “an idyll of Old England,” perhaps giving us some insight as to how Americans saw Britain and the British at the time. Unsurprisingly, the story centers on class relations. The story concerns a young upper class ne’er-do-well (Chester Barnett, also in “Trilby” and “Woman”) who get expelled from college and takes on the job of tending a rose garden. He falls in love with the pastor’s daughter (Vivian Martin, later to star in “The Stronger Love” and “His Official Fiancée”) when she tries to steal some roses for the church. Of course, she is unaware that he’s rich, and of course this leads to both comedy and drama. When gypsies give her a “Wishing Ring,” he takes advantage of the situation, buying her fancy gifts after she has wished for them, and leaving notes that they are “from the Wishing Ring.” They drink tea, and dance around a maypole, the professors from the school all go around wearing their gowns, and the servants are more stuck up and rigid than their masters. Interestingly, I spotted a few “backward-facing” intertitles, suggesting that some filmmakers were beginning to experiment with different ways of telling the story than setting it up textually then showing it visually all the time. Overall, it’s light and fluffy, but interesting nonetheless.

Director: Maurice Tourneur

Camera: John van der Broek

Starring: Chester Barnett, Vivian Martin, Alec B. Francis

Run Time: 60 Mins

I couldn’t find this one for free online. Let me know in the comments if you can.

After Death (1915)

After_Death

After seeing this, I feel I was entirely too faint in my praise of Evgeni Bauer in my review of “Twilight of a Woman’s Soul.” He was not simply a genius of Russian cinema, but of world cinema. His movies are technically years ahead of anyone else working at the time, including D..W. Griffith – watching them I feel like I’ve skipped ahead to the early 1920s. In this one, he not only uses pans and simple tracking shots, but close-ups, reversals, and edits to suggest the broader world the characters move in. Nothing feels like it is confined to a “stage” by the camera, and the angles and compositions he chooses prevents this even more by giving depth to every scene. The story is an improvement, it is based on a Turgenev story of unrequited love and tragic suicide, and the main character, an introverted young man, made me think of the heroes of Poe or even Lovecraft. Ultimately, it is his inability to express emotions or connect with other people that leads to the horror of this story, and I would argue that it is a horror movie, even though nothing more supernatural than dreams and hallucinations takes place. Years before “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” madness was used to chilling effect in this movie, happily still viewable a century later.

Director: Evgeni Bauer

Camera: Boris Zavelev

Cast: Vitold Polonsky, Vera Karalli

Run Time: 46 Mins

You can watch it for free: here.

Twilight of a Woman’s Soul (1913)

Twilight_of_a_Woman's_Soul_

In case you were wondering, in fact there was a Russian film industry before Sergei Eisenstein, and in fact some pretty good work was done during the Russian Empire before the Revolution(s) that would bring us “Battleship Potemkin” and other memorable silents. The genius of this period was Evgeni Bauer, whose career only lasted from 1913 until his untimely death in June, 1917 (between the February and October revolutions). This movie probably wouldn’t have been approved under either the Leninist or Stalinist regimes, as it tells the story of an innocent young noblewoman whose virtue is endangered by a shifty and deceitful working man, to whom she attempts to provide charity. After she murders him to avenge her honor, she is haunted by his image and unable to relate normally to her handsome suitor, a prince. She tries to tell him but he assures her he doesn’t care about the past, and they are married. When he finally finds out, he shows little sympathy for her situation (much less for the poor dead prole), but appears to regard himself as the true victim. The story may be a bit odd, but the photography is among the best I’ve seen for 1913, with careful composition and excellent set design. The contrast between rich and poor surroundings reminded me of “Fantômas” at times.

Director: Evgeni Bauer

Camera: Nikolai Kozlovsky

Starring: Nina Chernova, A. Ugrjumov, V. Demert

Run Time: 48 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Birth of a Nation (1915), Part I

Birth_of_a_Nation_theatrical_poster

Up to now, my reviews have been quite short. This is not a mistake: I want to cover as many films of each year as I can, and I want to make my discussions accessible. I also see them as potential jumping-off points for more detailed discussions in the comments. For this year, however, I’m making an exception. The legacy of the movie “The Birth of a Nation,” by D.W. Griffith is too much to handle in a single post of a few hundred words, so I’m giving myself all year to unpack it. This represents its powerful impact on film history, but no less its controversial and problematic content.

Let’s start with that. This movie is a blatant glorification of the Ku Klux Klan of the Reconstruction Era South and a continuation of the “Lost Cause” narrative of the Civil War which furthered the cause of white supremacy by framing the South as the noble victim of Northern industrial and technological advancement. The movie was so powerful in delivering this message that it facilitated the rebirth of a new KKK in America, which became a powerful political force throughout the country by the early 1920s and was still active in fighting the Civil Rights movement a generation later. As late as 1988, former klansman Thomas Martinez claimed that KKK-inspired organizations would use the silent movie as a recruitment device, more than 60 years after the introduction of sound film. In short, the movie is racist, and at least part of its legacy is racism. That’s all pretty obvious, but it has been known to get lost in discussions about how important, groundbreaking, original, etc. the film was. Perhaps more importantly, many people at the time, including D.W. Griffith himself, actually didn’t believe that it espoused race hatred. In short, it makes the movie a case study in the ways that a society glosses its own prejudices, until enough things change to make it obvious. If some people in 1915 couldn’t see the racism in “The Birth of a Nation,” what are we missing in 2015?

See for yourself: here.

The Essential Charlie Chaplin (1914-1917, 2004)

Charlie_Chaplin_-_May_1919_MPW

Worldcat Link: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/228466199

In the world of digital remastering, times change fast. Anyone who bought this collection of early Chaplin shorts in 2004 had to be satisfied with it as, most probably, the best available opportunity to see the first year of his career. Fortunately, in 2010, Flicker Alley came out with the superior “Chaplin at Keystone,” which I’ve reviewed before, and today many of the Century Films of Chaplin can be found in superior quality for free online. Even at the time of release, according to our friends at The Silent Era, there were better available copies of the later material. At least, judging by Worldcat, there aren’t many libraries still foisting this version off, but it’s the only way to get Keystone-era Chaplin on Netflix, and that’s distinctly a failure on their part. All of the prints are in bad shape, washed out so they appear over-exposed, and full of scratches and other damage. The music is apparently public domain jazz, which may be period-appropriate, but isn’t what you’d have been likely to hear in a Nickelodeon at the time, and no attempt has been made to sync it with the action on screen – someone just drops a needle and lets it run. In all, this is poor man’s Chaplin, and not worth the time.

Snubs and Surprises in the Century Awards

Those “other awards” always have all kinds of hype and discussion surrounding them, and I don’t want to disappoint anyone expecting that for the Century Awards. Here’s a bit of analysis of the nominees, done in the vapid yet breathless tone of a modern media outlet.

1914 brings a number of surprises, and it’s easy to see where the major players are. All four of the nominees for Best Picture have at least five other nominations, as they are all outstanding motion picture events, likely to have an impact on the movies for years to come. The front-runner, “Cabiria,” has eight nominations, and a sweep would represent a major coup for director and producer Giovanni Pastrone. There’s no doubt that “Cabiria” has been a game-changer in the industry already, and major players such as D.W. Griffith have acknowledged its influence on their filmmaking.

Speaking of Griffith, he’s no newcomer to the biz, but he’s brought some important innovations this year to his work. One is his new emphasis on features as opportunities for the artist to express himself more deeply. Audiences have responded well to the new, longer format, and we suspect that he’ll be showing us some amazing things in the coming year. Another factor is his relocation to California, where he’d already made a few pictures, and his departure from Biograph Studios to set off on his own. Biograph wouldn’t even be in the running at all this year, except for two belated Griffith releases: “Judith of Bethulia” and his thoughtful short, “The Massacre.”

One newcomer did make a major splash, though, and that’s Cecil B. DeMille, whose “Squaw Man” is up for seven awards, including “Best Director” and “Best Picture.” His followup, “The Virginian,” hasn’t been as big a hit with the Century Academy, but box office returns have been good enough to keep DeMille on the scene for some time to come. We hope he won’t be remembered solely for Westerns, but that he gives himself a chance to expand a bit. He’s helped start up a new production company in Southern California, suggesting that the region may be important in movie making for years to come.

The other important newcomer for 1914 was a comedian named Chaplin. He’d never made a movie before February, and now he’s a household name. No small accomplishment for a young man in his twenties, as new to America as he is to film. His movie “Tillie’s Punctured Romance” is the big hit of comedies for the year with six nominations, including Best Picture and Chaplin himself for Best Actor. Chaplin was also nominated for his role in the Fatty Arbuckle vehicle “The Knockout” and for inventing the character of the “Little Tramp” for “Kid Auto Races in Venice.” Still, he may be resentful at not being nominated for any of the movies he directed this year – rumor has it he’s a bit of a diva.

It’s no rumor that Chaplin left Keystone for Essanay studios at the beginning of the year, something which bodes not well for producer Mack Sennett, whose inclusion in the awards hangs upon popular stars like Arbuckle, Chaplin, and Mabel Normand. Sennett has been called the “King of Comedy” for bringing us the Keystone Kops and his talent pool hasn’t run dry, but it takes a lot to stay at the top of an industry with so much competition.

And speaking of the stars! The Red Carpet promises to glitter this year with the likes of Mabel Normand, Pearl White, Mae Marsh, Mary Pickford, Blanche Sweet, and…Marie Dressler? Dressler’s the unlikely leading lady of the memorable Keystone feature “Tillie’s Punctured Romance,” and her plain looks and undisputed comic timing have taken the industry by storm. At forty six years old, she’s no glamour girl, but we have a feeling that she, and her “Tillie” character, will be with us in the years to come.

But back to our other leading ladies. If Chaplin is browned off at being passed over as a director, starlet Mabel Normand has even more to complain about: she’s been directing shorts at Keystone all year, and got no nod from the Academy for that or her leading roles in “Mabel Takes the Wheel” and other popular “Mabel” movies. Her supporting role in “Tillie’s Punctured Romance” was the only nomination she received. Could this be a symptom of the sexism in our industry?

The politically correct crowd are sure to grumble as well that “In the Land of the Head Hunters” isn’t up for Best Picture. With three nominations, including “Best Actor,” we’re sure that director and anthropologist Edwin S. Curtis has no complaints about the critical reception to his box office bomb (or could it be a sleeper hit?). The actor in question, one “Stanley Hunt” of the unpronounceable Kwakwaka’wakw peoples, has no other acting experience, and should cut an unusual figure on the Red Carpet whether he arrives in a rented tux or his traditional First Nations attire.

On the other side of the aisle, the family values crowd will be sorry to see that the new Oz Film Manufacturing Company hasn’t got a film up for any awards more prestigious than “Best Supporting Actress.” Still, between “Patchwork Girl” and the still unreleased “Magic Cloak,” there’s a total of six nominations for this spunky little studio, headed by no less a talent than L. Frank Baum himself. Word has it that his company is in trouble, though, so it’s an open question whether we’ll be seeing any other “Oz” movies in the future.

Probably the biggest snubs of the year were the “Millions” movies: neither “Brewster’s Millions” nor “The Million Dollar Mystery” got any nominations at all. The latter lived up to its name by grossing $1.5 million at the box office, and has to be considered the popular hit of the year. But, these are the Century Awards and, sadly, neither of these movies can be seen by our reviewers living in 2014: a reminder to us all of the importance of film preservation.

The Raw Numbers:

Cabiria – 8 (incl Best Pic)

Tillie’s Punctured Romance – 6 (incl Best Pic)

Judith of Bethulia – 7 (incl Best Pic)

The Squaw Man – 7 (incl Best Pic)

Cinderella – 3

In the Land of the Head Hunters – 3

The Avenging Conscience – 3

Patchwork Girl of Oz – 3

Magic Cloak of Oz – 3

Perils of Pauline – 2

The Knockout – 2

Kid Auto Races at Venice – 2

The Nominations…

So, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced the nominations for the Oscars earlier today, and, as usual I’ve seen only one movie on the list, which deserves to win neither of the categories it was nominated for. It occurred to me that I should have posted my choices for 1914 this morning – when it was still January 15 in most of the world, but, I guess people are used to Awards being held in Left Coast Time anyway.

The rules to the Academy Awards say that there can be “up to five” nominees for each category except Best Picture, which gets “up to ten.” If you want to weigh in on the choices I’ve made, cast your “vote” by commenting, and explain why you think your chosen film should win. I’m still the final arbiter (it’s my blog), but I’ll certainly take well-thought-out arguments into account.

So, without further ado, here are the nominations for the Century Awards for 1914. In many cases, the credits are incomplete, but where possible, I’ve given the name of the crew member nominated:

Best Makeup/Hairstyling

  1. Judith of Bethulia
  2. Cinderella
  3. Patchwork Girl of Oz
  4. Kid Auto Races at Venice (Charlie Chaplin)
  5. Last of the Line

Best Costume Design

  1. Cabiria
  2. In the Land of the Head Hunters (Kwakwaka’wakw peoples)
  3. Magic Cloak of Oz
  4. Kid Auto Races at Venice (Charlie Chaplin)
  5. Judith of Bethulia

Best Production Design

  1. Cabiria
  2. Judith of Bethulia
  3. Magic Cloak of Oz
  4. The Squaw Man (Wilfred Buckland)
  5. Silent Witnesses (Evgeni Bauer)

Best Stunts

  1. Perils of Pauline (Pearl White, et al.)
  2. Patchwork Girl of Oz (Pierre Couderc, et al.)
  3. The Knockout (Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, et al.)
  4. Leading Lizzie Astray (Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, et al.)
  5. Salomy Jane (Jack Holt, et al.)

Best Film Editing

  1. Tillie’s Punctured Romance
  2. The Avenging Conscience (James Smith & Rose Smith)
  3. The Squaw Man (Mamie Wagner)
  4. The Massacre
  5. Last of the Line

Best Cinematography

  1. In the Land of the Head Hunters (Edmund August Schwinke)
  2. Cabiria (Segundo de Chomón)
  3. The Virginian (Alvin Wyckoff)
  4. Judith of Bethulia (G.W. “Billy” Bitzer)
  5. Silent Witnesses

Best Visual Effects (incl. animation)

  1. Gertie the Dinosaur (Winsor McCay)
  2. Patchwork Girl of Oz (Will H. White)
  3. Cabiria (Eugenio Bava)
  4. The Squaw Man
  5. Silent Witnesses

Best Screenplay

  1. Tillie’s Punctured Romance (Hampton Del Ruth)
  2. Cabiria (Gabriele D’Annunzio)
  3. The Avenging Conscience (D.W. Griffith)
  4. The Squaw Man (Cecil B. DeMille & Oscar Apfel)
  5. Silent Witnesses (Aleksander Vosnesenki)

Best Supporting Actress

  1. Mabel Normand for Tillie’s Punctured Romance
  2. Mae Marsh for Judith of Bethulia
  3. Mildred Harris for Magic Cloak of Oz
  4. Inez Marcel for Cinderella
  5. Elsa Krueger for Silent Witnesses

Best Supporting Actor

  1. Lon Chaney for By the Sun’s Rays
  2. Bartolomeo Pagano for Cabiria
  3. Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle for The Rounders
  4. Charlie Chaplin for The Knockout
  5. Alec B. Francis for The Wishing Ring

Best Leading Actor

  1. Dustin Farnum for The Squaw Man
  2. Henry B. Walthall for The Avenging Conscience
  3. Stanley Hunt for In the Land of the Head Hunters
  4. Charlie Chaplin for Tillie’s Punctured Romance
  5. Joe Goodboy for Last of the Line

Best Leading Actress

  1. Blanche Sweet for Judith of Bethulia
  2. Pearl White for Perils of Pauline
  3. Marie Dressler for Tillie’s Punctured Romance
  4. Mary Pickford for Cinderella
  5. Beatriz Michelena for Salomy Jane

Best Director

  1. D.W. Griffith for Judith of Bethulia
  2. Cecil B. DeMille for The Squaw Man
  3. Giovanni Pastrone for Cabiria
  4. Louis Feuillade for Fantômas Contre Fantômas
  5. Evgeni Bauer for Silent Witnesses

Best Picture

  1. Tillie’s Punctured Romance (Mack Sennett)
  2. Cabiria (Giovanni Pastrone)
  3. Judith of Bethulia (Biograph Pictures)
  4. The Squaw Man (Cecil B. DeMille & Jesse L. Lasky)
  5. Silent Witnesses (Evgeni Bauer)
  6. Salomy Jane (Alexander E. Beyfuss)

And the Categories Are…

OK, it’s time to get serious about the Century Awards for 1914. I’ve spent some time reviewing the way the Academy Awards work, and I’ve realized I needed to make a few changes. Below, you can see the categories I plan to use for the awards this year. It’s subject to change in subsequent years.

Let’s start with the big question I had to face: shorts vs. features. Pretty much all the categories in the Academy Awards (best acting, best makeup, etc) are only given to feature-length films defined as being over forty minutes in length. The only awards that shorts can compete for is “Best Live-Action Short Film,” Best Animated Short,” and “Best Documentary Short.” Well, in a world that’s defined by feature films, that makes sense, but features were just getting started in 1914, and that would severely limit my choices and also not really represent filmmaking as it existed at the time. The features have a bit of an advantage, because in general more work went into them, so in future years, I may start moving away from including all films of all lengths in all categories, but for this year that’s how I plan to do it. I’m also making no distinction between American and “Foreign” movies. This is an international award, and language makes little difference for silent movies. Obviously the categories relating to sound have been eliminated.

There are a couple of other choices I made: I’ve eliminated “Best Animated Movie” and “Best Documentary” for this year, because I didn’t see very many of them. I only saw one animated film (“Gertie the Dinosaur”), so I guess it wins “Best Animated Movie” hands-down. I’ve decided, however, that animation counts as “Visual Effects,” so that movie will be up for that category. There were no true documentaries at all that I managed to see. Let’s remember that a lot of films from the silent era are lost, and that I only had so much time to put into this project. I’m sure there were documentaries in 1914. “In the Land of the Head Hunters” doesn’t count, because it showed a fictional story – it’s in the running for all the usual categories.

One category I regret removing: “Best Score.” That may sound crazy, since these are silent films, but scores were often written and sent out in sheet music for presenters to give to their house orchestras. The problem is that I often can’t find a copy of a movie with that score included, and sometimes I can’t tell whether they’ve used an original score or some cheap public domain substitute on a DVD. So, I can’t make a fair assessment. If there’s a silent movie music fan out there that wants to take this on as their task for future years, contact me and we’ll try to work it out.

I’ve decided to simply give one award for screenplay, eliminating the distinction between “Best Original” and “Best Adapted” screenplays. That’s partly a matter of personal preference: I really don’t see the difference, since nothing is ever 100% “original” anyway, all ideas come from somewhere. But, it also saves me having to verify in each instance whether some long-forgotten novelette or theatrical piece actually preceded the movie.

I’ve added a new category also: “Best Stunts.” The Academy has resisted adding this as a category, I think for two reasons: one, in the world of CGI, it can be hard to distinguish a stunt from an effect, and two, having such a category would encourage people to take unreasonable risks in their stuntwork. Neither one applies to movies from 100 years ago, so I’m including it.

OK, enough with the rules, here are the categories for 1914. I’ll be announcing my nominations on January 15, 2015 (same day as the Academy Award nominees will be announced). There’s a difference, however, because I’m willing to take nominations from readers right up until Feb 28. So, if you think a movie should be up for a certain category, let me know in the comments. You can see all the 1914 films I’ve reviewed here.

Best Makeup/Hairstyling

Best Costume Design

Best Production Design

Best Stunts

Best Film Editing

Best Cinematography

Best Visual Effects (incl. animation)

Best Screenplay

Best Documentary

Best Supporting Actress

Best Supporting Actor

Best Leading Actor

Best Leading Actress

Best Director

Best Picture