Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Month: March, 2015

Burlesque on Carmen (1915)

Burlesque on carmen

I’m going a bit backward, reviewing this one now, since it was actually the last movie Charlie Chaplin made in 1915, but since I just did the DeMille “Carmen” last night, it’s appropriate. So far as Chaplin goes, the story is this: at the beginning of 1914, he met Mack Sennett and signed up with Keystone, rapidly producing a few dozen shorts and “Tillie’s Punctured Romance” and becoming a star in the process. At the end of the year, he demanded a raise to $1000, which is a lot more than I make, but not considered all that much for a movie star nowadays. Sennett refused him, so he signed with Essanay, who came up with the money and gave him even better exposure. By the end of that year, he was a worldwide mega-star (I just read a letter in the “Moving Picture World” today from South Africa, talking about how much they all loved him there), and wanted still more money. Once again, Essanay refused the raise, so he signed with Mutual for ten times as much. But before his Essanay contract ran out, he made this spoof of the popular opera/novel/movie(s).

 Burlesque_on_Carmen_Film_Daily_1919

So how is it? In comparison to Chaplin’s Keystone work, it’s leaps and bounds ahead. The story is more complicated, his style is more honed, and there’s more room for his co-stars to get in some good parts. The filmmaking of 1915, as I’ve mentioned several times this year, is much closer to what we expect in a modern film, and I think there’s actually more use of close-ups and multiple shots within scenes than we saw in DeMille’s version. The plot is basically a speeded-up version of that one, with gestures, costumes, and title cards borrowed or deliberately sent up at several points. Edna Purviance, who plays Carmen, is perfect, both as a compliment to Farrar’s sophisticated yet bestial sensuality, and as a skilled comedienne with a sense of timing to match Chaplin’s. Chaplin is more or less doing his “Little Tramp” character in a uniform here, and in the year since he left Keystone, he’s made that character more sympathetic and more believable. A running gag involves the fact that his full-size sword sheath contains only a tiny dagger, which he tends to whip out at inopportune moments. No Freudian humor here or anything. I’m looking forward to getting fully caught up with Chaplin’s Essanay career as the year progresses.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Leo White, John Rand

Run Time: 31 Min, 24 secs

You can watch it for free: here (Sorry, no music)

Advertisements

Carmen (1915)

Carmen_(1915)

Both Cecil B. De Mille and Raoul Walsh directed versions of this story in 1915, early in their careers as directors, but De Mille’s is the only one that survives at present, so unless Walsh’s is rediscovered and restored, only De Mille will be considered on this blog. I might as well admit right off that I’m hardly well-educated in the many versions of “Carmen.” I know the music mostly from “Gilligan’s Island,” and the story from Jack Lemmon and more significantly from Radley Metzger’s 1960s adult version. The story is pretty simple, though, a naïve young officer falls in love with a woman of low morals (here, a gypsy allied with smugglers), and is ruined, as he is dragged increasingly to her level in order to try to hold on to her. Here, the title character is played by Geraldine Farrar (later in “Joan the Woman” and “Flame of the Desert”), who approaches the role with more strength, confidence, and maturity than I expected. I say maturity not just in the sense that she’s clearly older than, let’s say, a D.W. Griffith starlet (Griffith seems to have liked them young, but Farrar was 33 when this was made), but in the sense that she brings an obvious range of emotional experience to her character. The obsessed hero is played by Wallace Reid (almost ten years her junior, he was also in “Joan the Woman” and had a small role in “The Birth of a Nation”), and typically I found him a bit less interesting to watch, though as he gets more desperate and more tormented, he does show some decent acting chops as well.

 Carmen_1915 Poster

“Carmen” is once again a demonstration of how much of a game-changer the year 1915 was for film making. We get a variety of camera angles and compositions, including some judiciously used close ups and camera-masking for emphasis. Even when in two-shots or longer shots, actors’ faces are generally visible, and there’s no hesitation to cut them in half (or more) to get them on the screen. The intertitles are placed in mid-action, rather than set up to introduce what follows. Actors move upscreen and downscreen, not simply on and off stage. There’s a well-choreographed sword fight and a good crowd scene as well as bullfighting in Seville. Costumes and sets clearly took some real work and attention. The editing is tight and uses inter-cut simultaneous action to draw out tension during the climax. Unfortunately, the surviving print is a 1918 re-release, so it’s possible that some aspects, especially the editing, have been “modernized” a bit for this print.

Director: Cecil B. De Mille

Camera: Alvin Wyckoff

Starring: Geraldine Farrar, Wallace Reid, William Elmer, Raymond Hatton

Run Time: 57 Min, 15 secs

You can watch it for free: here (tinted, no music), or here (b&w, no music)

Mr. Flip (1909)

Mr Flip

This fairly primitive slapstick comedy starring Ben Turpin has the distinction of being believed to contain the first example of a character hitting another character with a pie in the face for comedic effect. It wouldn’t surprise me if there actually is an earlier example, or indeed if the trope had been invented in vaudeville before hitting the movies, but this is the earliest one I’ve seen so far, so I’ll go along with it. The plot is quite thin. Turpin is a goofy-faced “masher” who goes to a variety of establishments which employ women and annoys them until they take revenge or humiliate him in some way. I laughed as much with surprise as with humor when the lady at the general store has him removed on a hand truck. The bit with him sitting on a pair of scissors at the manicurist is made funny by his body language, though it’s drawn out more than necessary. In addition to the pie-in-the-face at the restaurant, he is also sprayed with seltzer (another classic bit, though I’m not sure if this is the first instance) by the bartender and several patrons at a bar. It struck me that there is a kind of statement here about the harassment women working with the public had to put up with, and the humor comes in their being able to defend themselves, but Mr. Flip is certainly not a charming character.

Director: Gilbert Anderson

Starring: Ben Turpin

Run Time: 3 Mins, 45 secs.

You can watch it for free: here.

New Membership

CMBAlogo

Over the last couple of weeks, I applied for, and was accepted into the Classic Movie Blog Assocation. I’m pleased to join what looks like a very professional group of bloggers, and I hope that they will find my idiosyncratic researches into Century Film as informative and fun as I do.

Cheat, The (1915)

Cheat_FilmPoster

Cecil B. DeMille was lucky to start making movies independently in 1914. Unlike the previous generation of directors, he didn’t have to serve a long apprenticeship making short films, and unlike directors bound to the Edison Trust, he didn’t have to fight to be able to work in feature length. He lept in with Westerns like “The Squaw Man” and “The Virginian,” then graduated in 1915 to dramas like this one (the epics he’s remembered for today don’t come along until the twenties).

Here, Fanny Ward (later in “Her Strange Wedding” and “Witchcraft”) is a young socialite with no head for money, whose husband (played by her real-life husband Jack Dean, whose credits include “The Marriage of Kitty” and “A School for Husbands”) refuses to buy her fancy gowns and lingerie while his money is tied up in an important investment. So, she wisely decides to invest the money entrusted to her by the Red Cross in a shady copper mine pushed on her by some guy at a party. Salvation comes in the form of Sessue Hayakawa (who we saw in “Last of the Line” and later got an oscar nomination for “Bridge on the River Kwai”), a wealthy Asian financier, who offers to loan her the money to save face. When Dean’s investment pays off, Fanny is jubilant, and runs over to pay off Sessue, but he’s not having it. He clearly felt he had “bought” her when he lent the money, and he proves it by taking out a wax seal and branding her with his mark! Understandably displeased, Fanny picks up a revolver and shoots him in the shoulder, running off into the night. Now hubby wanders in, no doubt wondering where his wife ran off to with $10,000 in the middle of the night. Finding the wounded man, the check, and the gun, he puts it together and confesses to the crime when the police arrive. His wife’s later efforts to buy off the scheming villain are to no avail – “You cannot cheat me twice,” he declares. This leaves her no choice but to pull a dramatic court room reveal, saving the day at the risk of her honor.

Cheat_1915

Now, a lot’s already been made about the fact that the villain is a foreigner, to the point that the intertitles were changed in 1918 to make him Burmese rather than Japanese, due to protests from the Japanese government. And it certainly fits the general racial attitudes of the day, though I would point out that Hayakawa is never held up to represent all members of his race; he appears to act as an individual. At worst, he’s sort of a “Shylock” character, who would confirm existing prejudices without necessarily promoting them to new audiences. What is interesting is that the end of the movie toys with the possibility of a bloody lynching when the white male spectators at the trial burst into an angry mob at the sight of Fanny’s brand. But it doesn’t go there. The judge insists on keeping order, and the police eventually calm things down and escort Sessue out of the room. The message does not seem to endorse lawless racist vigilantism, at least, which is more than I can say for “The Birth of a Nation.”

Since I noted the good use of darkness and shadow in Feuillade’s early work recently, I want to draw special attention to how far we’ve come by 1915. There are several darkened rooms and darkened exteriors, and especially good is the dark jail cell, with the shadows of bars striking Dean’s frame and the back wall, in a noir-like effect. When Fanny moves a practical lamp, however, its shadow is clearly visible against her, making it obvious that the light actually comes from another (off screen) source. The whole movie is shot much closer to the actors than earlier films would have been. There are few true close ups, but quite a few intimate two-shots, and shots that show only the upper half of the actors, meaning that we can see faces much more clearly and rely less on pantomime.

Director: Cecil B. DeMille

Camera: Alvin Wyckoff

Starring: Fanny Ward, Jack Dean, Sessue Hayakawa, Raymond Hatton

Run Time: 58 Min, 50 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Venues of 1915: Nickelodeons to Movie Palaces

ComiqueTheatre

Last year around this time, I talked about my understanding of the audiences of a century ago. Today, I’d like to expand that a bit by talking about what I’ve learned since then about the places people went to see movies.

My periodization suggests that we are now moving from the “Nickelodeon Era” to the “Silent Classical Period.” So, the nickelodeons are on the way out? What does that mean? And what the heck is a nickelodeon in the first place?

Let’s start by talking about what a nickelodeon isn’t, first. It’s not an arcade lined with peep-show machines like Kinetescopes, nor is it the name of any such device. That sort of movie-viewing was a brief fad in the late-nineteenth century, which rapidly disappeared when camera-and-projection systems were developed by Lumière, Edison, and others. For some time afterward, movies were shown in temporary venues, like World’s Fairs or museums, or at traditional live theaters adapted for the purpose, as with the Théâtre Robert-Houdin of Georges Méliès.

Auditorium_Theatre_in_Toronto

Both of these were somewhat outside the range of the poorer classes, at least as regular entertainment options. So long as the movies were restricted to these kinds of venues, the demand for new material was small enough to be manageable. But the desire to see moving pictures meant that there was a market for anyone who could make them available cheaply. In 1905, John P. Harris decided to convert a small storefront in Philadelphia to a makeshift theater and show movies there for 5 cents. He called his new establishment a “nickelodeon” from the word for a five-cent-piece and an adaptation of the Greek word for “theater” (“odeion”). His business model, and the name, soon caught on as hundreds of small-time exhibitors began opening dime- and nickel-theaters.

So what was a nickelodeon like? It was not a purpose-built theater, but usually a darkened storefront or back room with some folding chairs and a screen at one end. The seats were level, not graded, so people in the front blocked the view of those behind them. The projector was often out on the floor and the proprietor might run it personally and offer narration to accompany the pictures. As they made more money, they might hire a professional “operator” to run the machine, and possibly put in a piano, or a small band, for accompaniment. The program would often include audience sing-alongs, with slide shows, and sometimes a live vaudeville act. There would be a ticket box at the outside. Shows generally ran thirty minutes, and would include multiple films. In the early years, a good percentage were “actualities” meaning documentary-style images of real or staged events, but demand for narrative stories rapidly grew. Nickelodeons frequently had bad ventilation, uncomfortable seating, and poor fire safety. That last was a particularly big issue, since the nitrate film used at the time was highly flammable, and local fire departments were among the biggest foes of the early motion picture industry.

Nickelodeons were believed to be a bad influence on youth.

Nickelodeons were believed to be a bad influence on youth.

There was also a perception, once the middle class press discovered the existence of this cottage industry, that they were places that encouraged vice and laziness among the worst segments of society. It is certainly true that they appealed to the urban working poor and to immigrants. Movies did not require any education to understand, and, since they were silent (and intertitles were limited, especially in the beginning), it didn’t matter what language you spoke. Anyone could understand them. The nickelodeon, so far as I can tell, was a largely American phenomenon, and it partly explains why the United States quickly became one of the largest markets for movies, as they led the world in making them cheaply accessible to the masses. And the masses responded, but meanwhile elites worried over what was really going on in those dark rooms, and might there be some way to “elevate” both the movies and their viewers.

Meanwhile, the owners of these little movie halls were getting rich. They opened more and more shops, in some cases forming empires through franchise systems. There seemed to be no limit to the number that could be opened in a given town – they often lined up in rows on a given street in a poorer neighborhood, and, as long as there were different movies at each one, they all turned a profit. Because supply was so far below demand, many of the more successful exhibitors started going into production, simply in order to be able to have something new to show. For some reason, the industry standard was to change the program every day, which meant that each nickelodeon needed at least 365 original films per year (more, really, since each program included multiple films). It was widely believed that “daily viewers” were the bread-and-butter of the industry, although I haven’t seen any studies that confirm this idea.

CrowdsinfrontofYongeStreettheatre

One of the results of this economic situation is that the movie industry worked fast and made lots of product, struggling to keep up with the demands of daily change-over in thousands of little storefronts. This partly explains the reluctance of Biograph and other early production companies to move towards making longer films. The nickelodeon owners counted on a full house every half an hour, and they would have to raise prices (possibly losing their audience as a result) if they showed movies lasting more than 20 or 25 minutes. They bought by the reel, not by the story, and sometimes the second part of a two-reeler would be shown first, or alone without any context, to an audience that didn’t realize it was out of sequence. But, the American motion picture industry grew rapidly under all the pressure for new movies.

The Mark Strand Theater in 1914.

The Mark Strand Theater in 1914.

Another result is that as the owners got rich, they tried to improve their businesses. They expanded the spaces by buying out extra lots, they made fireproof booths for the projectionist, they improved the seating. Eventually, some of them were making enough money to buy out failing theaters and convert them to movie halls. Then, in 1914, the Mark Strand Theater was built in New York City at a cost of 1 million dollars. It was the first purpose-built movie theater in the world. The improved concept of a movie theater made it possible to attract a higher-class audience, to charge more for admission, and to show longer pictures. The movies were finally becoming an “art form” or at least a cultural model with some degree of acceptance by elites.

Nothing changes overnight, of course, but you can already see the decline of the nickelodeon model in the early teens, as more longer movies start to show up with more “serious” subject matter, partially dictated by the progressive values of movie censors. By 1915, the feature film is an established fact of movie life, and D.W. Griffith famously succeeded in opening “The Birth of a Nation” in $2.00 theaters in various parts of the country. $2.00 was what people paid to see “legitimate” live theater on Broadway at the time. Nickelodeons continued to exist alongside the big theaters for some years to come, but their control of the market had slipped and would never return.

*Note: Much of the information for this article comes from Eileen Bowser, The Transformation of Cinema, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990.

Shorts Blogathon

shorts-marion

Well, the last blogathon from Movies Silently turned out so well that I’ve decided to participate in another one! I plan to post my review of Charlie Chaplin’s seminal film “The Tramp” (1915) as part of it. Don’t miss out and be sure to check out the other bloggers on the list!

Agony of Byzantium (1913)

Agony of Byzance

Alternate Titles: “L’Agonie de Byzance,” “The Agony of Byzance”

This will be the last Feuillade film I look at for a while – at least until I get around to watching “Les Vampires” later this year. It is the newest of all the short, non-“Fantômas” pieces I have reviewed, being released in October, 1913. In it, Feuillade attempts to create a historical epic on a very limited budget and entirely on indoor sets. He almost succeeds, but I have to point out that movies like “Judith of Bethulia” were shot around the same time and that battle scenes had been staged far more effectively in both “The Massacre” and “The Battle at Elderbush Gulch.” In other words, this is one area where D.W. Griffith surpassed Feuillade, although the freedom of using exteriors and his larger budget were surely factors. However, it also lacks human interest and compelling characters, which Feuillade was entirely capable of generating in other instances. The movie followed the First Balkan War, and at least one historian has seen its subject matter – the fall of Byzantium to the Turks in 1453 – as a political statement on contemporary events. Indeed, a year later Turkey and France would be on opposite sides of World War One, although most French propaganda would focus on the more immediate threat of Germany by that time.

Director: Louis Feuillade

Starring: Luitz-Morat, Renée Carl, Albert Reusy

Run Time: 29 Min, 38 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Bout de Zan Steals an Elephant (1913)

Bout_de_Zan Elephant

Alternate Titles: “Bout de Zan vole un éléphant,” “Tiny Tim and the Adventures of his Elephant.”

It’s often ignored that, in addition to long-drawn out crime serials, Louis Feuillade made a good part of his living off short, cheap kid films, such as the Bébé (Baby) films or the Bout de Zan movies (translated to English as “Tiny Tim”). Some years later, W.C. Fields would be praised for the wisdom of the saying “never work with children or animals,” but here Feuillade does both, with reasonable success. Bout de Zan is a tyke of maybe six or seven who wears a tramp outfit and sometimes looks at the camera when he should be “in the moment.” He sees a gypsy caravan with a young elephant (roughly adult-human-height), and coaxes it to give him a ride into the city. He scares some soldiers, takes over a beggar’s corner, and overturns an apple cart. Just when it seems the police will intervene, a kindly lady (Renée Carl again – just when I thought we might be done with her!) offers to take them to her house. The elephant demonstrates its excellent table manners by ringing the bell for the servant, eating with a fork, and using a napkin – but I hate to think how the maid will get the elephant poo off that lovely bourgeois apartment’s floors. Many of the “exteriors” in this movie were shot on a sound stage, indicating how low the budget was.

Director: Louis Feuillade

Starring: René Poyen, Renée Carl

Run Time: 9 Min, 23 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Tragic Error (1913)

Tragic Error

Alternate Title: Erreur Tragique

This early Feuillade is something of a reversal of “The Obsession.” Here, instead of a woman driven to obsession by her fixation with palmistry, a man is driven to obsession with his suspicion of his wife. The Marquis de Romiguières (played by René Navarre) is married to a lovely and charming young woman (Suzanne Grandais, also in “Le Mystères des Roches de Kador” and “The Heart and the Money”), but while he is in Paris on business, he sees a film that disturbs him. There is Suzanne, in the background, with another man on her arm! He buys a copy of the film and looks at it under a magnifying glass to be sure. Later, when he finds a note from her estranged brother, he puts it all together and decides that she is unfaithful, sabotaging the carriage she will take to meet her “lover” so that she will pay for her crime. Now, there’s two things I found interesting here: one was the portrayal of the movie theater and the film-within-a-film (a slapstick comedy in which a tramp beats up some policemen). The French “cinema” is a very small Nickelodeon-style space, but with room for three musicians at the front. The other thing is, once again, Feuillade’s willingness to shoot in the dark, both here and in the marquisse’s bedroom. Where Griffith’s “Avenging Conscience” from a year later seems overlit to me for a horror story, Feuillade (or his unknown cameraman) appears willing to show a very darkly lit room, and is able to make it work well. One shot even has the marquis enter a darkened room before bringing up the lights – trusting the audience to anticipate the new space. So far as I recall, I haven’t seen another filmmaker of the period use darkness so well.

Director: Louis Feuillade

Starring: René Navarre, Suzanne Grandais, Paul Manson

Run Time: 24 Min, 34 secs

You can watch it for free: here.