Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Month: February, 2015

Best Screenplay 1914

Even in an era before spoken dialogue, the screenplay was a vital piece of creating a narrative film. Think of it as the architectural blueprint or the military battle plan that you need to have before embarking on a complex and potentially expensive endeavor. While some directors held their screenplays in their heads or kept them a secret, often getting actors to evoke the right mood required them to have something to read in preparation of their performances. These could be a simple listing of camera setups or a complete novelization of the storyline.

Since we don’t have access to these original documents, this award is to a large degree a measure of the effectiveness of the narrative as it appears on screen and in intertitles. “Tillie’s Punctured Romance” demonstrates an understanding of the “lost girl” narrative and brilliantly satirizes it, while “Silent Witnesses” gives us an original interpretation of that storyline that introduces class analysis to strengthen its case. The poetry of cinema reaches a new level with the words of Gabriele D’Annunzio for the intertitles of “Cabiria,”while the poetry of Edgar Allen Poe comes to life in “The Avenging Conscience.” Finally, a fascinating interpretation of the intersection between European and Native American culture is explored in the story to “The Squaw Man.”

The nominees for best screenplay for 1914 are:

  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 Vosnesenski)

And the winner is… Gabriele D’Annunzio for “Cabiria!”

 Gabriele_D'Anunnzio

Apart from the excellent adventure story set in a time largely forgotten by modern people, the words of D’Annunzio added authenticity and lyricism to the experience of watching this film, which I’ve seen three or four times now, and never get tired of. Particularly for the pagan ritual scenes, D’Annunzio connects to an emotional level rarely used for text at this time. One of the few films that really seems to overcome silence to create dialogue, Cabiria was an easy choice for this category.

Best Visual Effects 1914

Almost as soon as motion picture cameras were being used, their operators discovered ways to use them to “trick the eye” into thinking it was seeing things otherwise impossible. Objects and people were made tiny or gigantic, or to appear and disappear by magic, or to float or fly. By 1914, the simple “trick films” of Georges Méliès would be old hat, yet filmmakers continued incorporating his techniques into their films and expanding on them, especially when the subject matter was given to fantasy, or included dream sequences.

The films nominated for Century Awards this year are, for the most part, examples of this subtle inclusion of special effects into a broader narrative. “Silent Witnesses” includes a novel use of the divided screen, to demonstrate two ends of a telephone conversation. “The Patchwork Girl of Oz” includes a number of magical sequences, including the original animation of the title character, people turned into statues, and a scene in which a table sets itself for the Magician. The movie “Cabiria” relies on mostly more prosaic storytelling, but does include scenes demonstrating the unearthly strength of Maciste, and the sacrifices to Mammon. The “Squaw Man” is an even more scrupulously realistic picture, but it does reproduce a fire at sea and the resulting sinking of a vessel. Finally, although the setup to “Gertie the Dinosaur” is shown in live-action, the rest of the film demonstrates Winsor McCay’s skill as an animator, the newest art of camera trickery, in which still drawings are given movement.

The nominees for best visual effects for 1914 are:

  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

And the winner is… “Gertie the Dinosaur!”

 Gertie

As opposed to the moving but unmotivated characters of 1912’s “Little Nemo” film, Gertie is imbued with both movement and personality, and unlike the simplistic drawings for “How a Mosquito Operates,” she is fully-fleshed and detailed. As a movie, the film only works when presented with McCay’s live narration, however the effect of the moving dinosaur is an undeniable advance in film technique. No doubt in future years animation will have its own category in the Century Awards, and this will be due largely to the pioneering work of Winsor McCay.

Best Cinematography 1914

Cinema is, ultimately, the art of using a motion picture camera. In the very early days, the cameraman was king of the movie set, the person who decided everything about what the audience would see. But, innovators like Georges Méliès put an end to that – in his case for the simple expedient of being in front of the camera. The division of labor had a practical side as well. Often, it made sense for someone with experience in acting to direct the actors, while the cinematographer took care of the technical and visual side of storytelling.

By 1914, directors and producers were generally credited with most of the “creative” side of filmmaking. Even Billy Bitzer, the genius behind most of D.W. Griffith’s films, said in his autobiography that he considered himself a craftsman and not an artist. Those familiar with “Judith of Bethulia,” the first feature these two collaborated on, may disagree. Where Bitzer gives us battle and drama, Segundo de Chomón gives us true spectacle in “Cabiria.” No one, including Griffith, ever forgot the creative use of tracking shots in that film. Alvin Wyckoff, working on “The Virginian,” on the other hand, produces a unique vision of the Old West in an era when not everyone had yet forgotten it. Working in Canada, Edmund August Schwinke tried to maintain a level of accuracy in portraying the Kwakwaka’wakw peoples for “In the Land of the Head Hunters.” And, last but not least, an unnamed camera operator (possibly Boris Zavelev) showed us a truly advanced vision of the cinema in “Silent Witnesses.”

The nominees for best cinematography for 1914 are:

  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

And the winner is…the anonymous camerawork of “Silent Witnesses!”

 Silent_Witnesses

This was another tough call, especially in light of the influential nature of “Cabiria” and the lasting fame of Billy Bitzer. But, as astounding as those tracking shots must have been in 1914, they don’t hold up all that well today, they seem to be somewhat random in their placement and duration, and Bitzer was also capable of better than he showed us in “Judith,” possibly being overwhelmed by the scale of the picture. I’ve said that “Silent Witnesses” isn’t my favorite Bauer, but even so, it feels ahead of its time when placed next to any of the others, at least in terms of camera positions and lighting.

Best Film Editing 1914

In the earliest days of film, action was performed in real-time, and no editing took place, but even the simple visual effects of Georges Méliès required in-camera editing by stopping and starting the camera at key moments. By 1914, narratives were created through multiple shots and structured by combining them to create meaning. Directors came to see that tension could be built by cutting away from action before its resolution, and audiences could be given information (for example through the use of a close up) to which the characters were not privy. And a complex situation, such as a battle, often could be better decoded by using multiple camera angles and cutting between them.

Each of the movies selected for this category demonstrate the height of editing at the time. “Tillie’s Punctured Romance,” a rare feature-length comedy, uses editing between different camera set-ups to produce hilarity and mayhem. “The Avenging Conscience” inserts grim imagery into the storyline to effectively produce a feeling of dread. In “The Squaw Man,” a man is assassinated by a sniper while apparently killed in a gunfight, with the editing making this clear to the audience even though it is secret to nearly all participants. “The Massacre” demonstrates D.W. Griffith’s increasing mastery of the use of multiple camera angles in a bloody and chaotic battle scene. “The Last of the Line,” like both of the two previous films, also heightens the drama of a battle by showing the audience what the characters cannot know.

The nominations for best editing for 1914 are:

  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

And the winner is… “The Massacre!”

Massacre_1914

The editing in this short really stood out to me, even though it was actually completed more than a year before its release, demonstrating why Griffith is remembered as one of the masters of the early period of filmmaking. In addition to the battle itself, the tension is built through inter-cutting to the hero riding off to get help and the cavalry’s charge to the rescue. I didn’t see better editing in the entire year.

Best Stunts 1914

Stuntwork is the black sheep of the modern film industry. Not included in the Academy Awards, professional stuntmen and women work in the shadows of the more famous stars and live largely unknown and unnoticed by the public, which nonetheless thrills at their accomplishments. In the early days of the film industry, most actors and actresses did their own stunts – it was expected – although occasionally a double would be found for a particularly challenging shot.

Stuntwork was vital to the slapstick comedies that were so popular before words added verbal comedy to the range of possibilities for the industry. Thus, we have two nominations for the surprisingly agile Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. In “Leading Lizzie Astray,” he plays a physical giant who destroys a wall and takes on a whole team of bad guys, while in “The Knockout” he performs an elaborate series of moves as an aspiring boxer outclassed in the ring by much more able opponents (with no less than Charlie Chaplin as the unfortunate ref). Jack Holt took on the stunt-double’s work for William Pike in “Salomy Jane,” falling down a cliff into a river, and trained acrobat Pierre Couderc gives us flips and falls as “The Patchwork Girl of Oz.” Finally, Pearl White undertook a number of harrowing situations in “The Perils of Pauline.”

The nominees for best stunts for 1914 are:

  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)

And the winner is… Pearl White and others for “Perils of Pauline!”

 Perils_of_Pauline

Pearl White got my attention in the very first chapter of the serial, when she scaled a rope from a balloon onto a beach, and she never let up in getting herself into and out of trouble in dangerous ways. Although it’s possible a double was used (and that balloon was never quite so far off the ground as it seemed), the stuntwork in this serial is outstanding, and holds up a century later as a remarkable achievement.

Best Production Design 1914

In the early years of film, movie making was very much a “physical” process. There was no way to create a landscape for an audience through computer trickery, you had to create it in at least two, and often three, dimensions, in order to convince the audience that it existed. While early film was often satisfied to simply work on indoor sets and small stages, by 1914 film producers and directors were starting to make elaborate environments for their actors to perform in, and sets were getting bigger and bigger.

Both “Judith of Bethulia” and “Cabiria” built cities from the ancient world as settings for their stories, with gargantuan features that at times dominate the human actors – the walls of the city in “Judith” and the Temple of Mammon for “Cabiria” being standout examples. “The Squaw Man” deserves special notice for the innovation of building an indoor set right next to a railroad track, so that the actual trains rushing by would become part of the action without camera trickery. “Magic Cloak of Oz” gave us not one, but two fairy castles, as well as the city of Noland with its fanciful architectural style. Finally, production-designer-turned-director Evgeni Bauer gave us a complex and believable bourgeois household, contrasting the beautifully decorated living quarters with the Spartan look of the servants’ domains in “Silent Witnesses.”

The nominees for best production design for 1914 are

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

And the winner is…”Cabiria!”

 Cabiria

Although the other contenders had some good work, noted above, there really was nothing to compete with the grand scale and imagination of “Cabiria.” D.W. Griffith himself was floored when he saw it, and would try building on that scale two years later when he made “Intolerance.” But until then, nothing could hope to touch it.

Best Costume Design 1914

It’s been said that “clothes make the man,” and the clothes an actor wears can help to create a character that stands out to an audience and informs it about the history and personality of that character. Each of the nominated films in this category exemplify that, with “Cabiria” and “Judith of Bethulia” standing out as “costume dramas” set in antiquity, “In the Land of the Head Hunters” taking advantage of native ritual garments to create an otherworldly experience, and “Magic Cloak of Oz” giving us a fantasy world where humans dressed as animals and fantastic beasts interact with women dressed as men.

The nominees for best costume design are:

  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

And the winner is…Charlie Chaplin for “Kid Auto Races at Venice, California”!

Kid's_auto_races

I gave away at the outset who the winner would be, because I don’t think there’s any more iconic costume from 1914 than Charlie Chaplin as the “Little Tramp.” While “Kid Auto Races” was hardly his best movie of the year (it’s more like watching a screen test), it was the movie that introduced the world to Chaplin in the clothes that would become inextricably associated with his name and his fame. Out of costume, he was rarely recognized, but in costume, he was the man loved by everyone. The Century Film Project is pleased to honor his achievement.

Best Makeup and Hairstyling 1914

Hello everyone and welcome to the Century Awards! I’ve decided that the best way I can simulate the tension and ceremony of the Oscars is to post one award per hour, building up to the Best Picture of 1914 late tonight. So, get ready, here we go!

Faces are the raw material for movies, especially when dialogue is limited to intertitles and music is not reproduced the same way in different venues, as was the case during the Nickelodeon Era. The appearance of a performer may be radically altered by makeup and hairstyling: a young person can be made old, or a healthy person appear deformed. The audience’s experience of a film is subtly influenced by the work of preparation that takes place before they enter the camera’s stage.

Each of the nominations this year honors a film that made good use of that prep time. From Mary Pickford’s elaborate locks as the fairy tale queen “Cinderella” to the makeup that turned lovely Violet MacMillan into a boy and Pierre Couderc into the “Patchwork Girl of Oz,” from Henry B. Walthall’s frightening turn as Holofernes to Sessue Hayakawa’s convincing transformation into a Native American in “Last of the Line,” each of these makeup artists has contributed outstanding work to the history of film. And, of course, we can’t forget the little mustache and curly mop of hair that defines the “Little Tramp” for us.

The nominees for best makeup and hairstyling for 1914 are:

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

And the winner is…”Patchwork Girl of Oz!”

Patchwork Girl of Oz

This was tough, but I ultimately decided that the “Little Tramp” is more significantly defined by costume than makeup – you can pull off a Charlie Chaplin imitation without the hair, but not without the right clothes – which left me examining the others to see which really made the most impressive use of makeup and hairstyling. Pickford’s “Cinderella” was a serious contender, but apart from her and the brief visit to the witch, there wasn’t all that much going on there. “Patchwork Girl of Oz” is disappointing in terms of special effects, but quite advanced in makeup and hair. Almost every character (except those whose costumes covered their faces) has some work going on to make them seem more bizarre and fantastic.

Ammunition Smuggling on the Mexican Border (1914)

Ammunition Smuggling

This can be called an early attempt at making a “docudrama,” and it may be one of the most authentic of those ever filmed, because many of the actors are re-creating their own actions on the screen. The movie depicts the failed attempt of a Texas posse to apprehend smugglers taking arms across the border for the Mexican Revolution, and the subsequent captivity of two of the members of said posse, the death of one of the hostages and the eventual liberation of the other and the capture of the criminals. The movie was produced by that surviving posse member, former sheriff Eugene T. Buck, and of course is told entirely from his point of view, with no attempt at a balanced or fair perspective on the revolutionaries he fought against. Those revolutionaries were anarchists and comrades of Emiliano Zapata, and got the support of American radicals like Emma Goldman after their capture, while Buck’s testimony was called into serious question on the stand. The film was shot only weeks after that testimony. As interesting as this history makes the movie, I found the unimaginative cinematography (almost every shot is a static crowd shot, with individual characters hard to distinguish) and the poor quality of the print made it hard to maintain an interest.

Director: Eugene T. Buck

Cast: Eugene T. Buck

Run Time: 41 Min

I have not been able to find this for free online. If you know where it can be seen, please inform us in the comments.

Better Man (1912)

Better_Man

Once again, we have an interesting exploration of ethnic and gender tropes in an early Western, this time from Vitagraph who were seen as the major competition for Biograph in turning out drama at the time. Here, a Mexican horse thief (played by Robert Thornby, who went on to direct “The Deadlier Sex” and “Bianca”) proves to be “the better man” than a white husband and father who gambles away his pay at a bar while his young child lies sick at home. The thief enters the home looking for food, but the wife implored him to find a doctor, and, his heart moved by the icon of Maria on the wall, the wanted Latino criminal agrees, though it exposes him to possible capture. The father attempts to apprehend him, is bested in a fair fight, and tries again to get the drop on the Mexican while the doctor ministers to the child, resulting in a thorough shaming by his own wife. Although it may seem a surprising turn of events, the story is in line with other progressive “message pictures” of the day which blamed much of the world’s misery on unmanly men for failing to live up to their gender role as providers and protectors of women and children.

Director: Rollin S. Sturges

Cast: Anne Schaefer, Robert Thornby

Run Time: 12 Min

I have been unable to locate this movie online. If you know where it can be seen for free, please link to it in the comments.