Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Month: April, 2015

Band Drill (1894)

Band Drill

Here, the Kinetoscope is used to record a limited maneuver by a marching band inside the Black Maria. There’s not a lot of room, so we only get nine performers, mostly with small trumpets, marching toward the camera and falling into lines while apparently playing a jostly marching tune. I say “apparently,” because in this film more than most of the other Kinetoscope movies we’ve seen, it’s very apparent how silent the medium is. According to Charles Musser, in The Emergence of Cinema, this was one of five short films depicting Charles Hoyt’s musical comedy “A Milk White Flag.” Presumably, like the six parts of the “Corbett – Courtney Fight,” these could be purchased as a group by exhibitors who would put them into adjacent machines, encouraging the viewer to drop a dime into each one to see the whole story unfold. It’s the only one I’ve seen, however, so I can’t say how effectively this worked. As an aside, marching bands and parades became a common subject for “actuality” films in the last years of the nineteenth century, apparently because they guaranteed both movement and large, outdoor scenes of cities people were interested in seeing. This movie is not part of that tradition, strictly speaking, but it does herald it to some degree.

Director: W.K.L. Dickson

Camera: William Heise

Run Time: 29 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.

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Bucking Broncho (1894)

Bucking Broncho1

This Kinetoscope picture, as with “Caicedo with Pole,” was shot outside the Black Maria studio, in a corral near the studio according to Charles Musser. Even though this was New Jersey, not the Wild West, I suppose it’s possible that there was an already-existing corral on the premises in this era of horse-drawn transportation. The movie is, of course, one of those made during the visit of Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show to the Edison Studios, along with “Annie Oakley” and “Sioux Ghost Dance.” The bronco is quite aggravated in its bucking, made the moreso when a cowpoke fires his gun into the corral to get it even more worked up. The rider hangs on almost to the end, at which point he seems to voluntarily dismount, while the horse continues to leap in a dangerous fashion after he has gone. There are quite a number of male spectators in the background; presumably a group of Edison employees came out to see the spectacle on their break.

Director: W.K.L. Dickson

Camera: William Heise

Run Time: 38 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.

Glenroy Brothers No. 2 (1894)

Glenroy_Brothers_(1894)

This Kinetoscope movie depicts a boxing match, but, unlike last night’s “Corbett – Courtney Fight” or the previous “Leonard – Cushing Fight,” it probably didn’t get anyone at Edison Studios in trouble. It is a comedy routine performed by two actors known as the Glenroy brothers, and is an early example of the use of slapstick in silent film. It is included with other “Buffalo Bill” Kinetoscopes in “The Invention of Movies,” but it doesn’t look like a Wild West act to me. Charles Musser in The Emergence of Cinema refers to the Glenroy Brothers as “a burlesque boxing act” – let’s remember that “burlesque” had different connotations at the time, because this is, if anything, a less sexy fight than Corbett & Courtney’s. I would say that this, along with the Annabelle Moore movies, represents one of the first genuine crossovers between moving pictures and Vaudeville, two forms of entertainment which would be closely linked in the years to come. Once again, there is no surviving “no. 1” of which I am aware, so this was probably a remake of a damaged film.

Director: W.K.L. Dickson

Camera: William Heise

Run Time: 36 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Corbett and Courtney Before the Kinetograph (1894)

Corbett and Courtney

In “The Invention of the Movies,” film historian Charles Musser takes some time to introduce this short Kinetoscope clip, arguing that it is symbolic of the “transgressive” nature of early cinema. It may not seem like all that big a deal to audiences today. However, it’s important to recall that boxing was illegal nearly everywhere in the USA, and that boxing was considered a violent “blood sport” equivalent to cock fighting. Edison was in fact prosecuted because of this movie, but got off, it would seem, due to his popularity among the type of men who sat on juries, on the claim that he was “away” the day this film was shot. The original version of this film was actually six one-minute reels, each showing a single round of the fight. Kinetoscope viewers could pay a nickel or dime to watch each round in sequence, moving from one machine to the next sequentially, or could save money and just watch the final reel to see who won. The version that survives is just a segment of one of the rounds, but I’m not certain which. The two fighters seem unevenly matched, one is much larger than the other and seems to have the upper hand, but this is a much more convincing match than the movie “Men Boxing” made previously as a experiment at the Black Maria studio. The larger of the two men (Corbett, I believe) is wearing rather revealing shorts, which ride up his rear almost like a g-string, which may have increased its “transgressive” nature for some audiences.

Director: W.K.L. Dickson

Camera: William Heise

Starring: James J. Corbett

Run Time: 45 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Birth of a Nation (1915) Part IV

The Rise of the Second KKK

Ku_Klux_Klan_members_march_down_Pennsylvania_Avenue_in_Washington,_D.C._in_1928

One thing that is often mentioned, but rarely examined, in discussion of the movie “The Birth of a Nation,” is the coincidence that it was released in the same year that an enterprising Southerner, William Joseph Simmons, re-established the organization of the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia. While it got off to a shaky start, this “second Klan” (often referred to by historians as “The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s”), rose to become a powerful political lobby, able to muster thousands of hooded marchers for a demonstration in Washington, DC, in 1928. It is estimated that as many as five million Americans joined during the decade, although most of them were fairly short-term members. I would really like to see a proper historical study documenting the links between the new Klan and the release of “The Birth of a Nation,” but for now this essay (derived from secondary sources) will have to do.

The original Ku Klux Klan had been a resistance organization for white Southerners during the period of Reconstruction. It consisted of loosely allied vigilante bands, who used terror against Northerners, Radical Republicans, freed African Americans and their Southern allies to re-establish an order of white supremacy and the control of traditional elites in the South. It was ultimately suppressed by order of the Federal Government, and this led to its abandonment by its most powerful supporters, who sought more above-ground, legal means to accomplish the same ends. Southern Democrats turned to two different means to accomplish this: the popularization of the myth of the “Lost Cause” of the South and the establishment of “Jim Crow” laws that were designed to keep African Americans in a position of separation and subjugation vis-à-vis whites. Since it was pretended that Jim Crow was based on “separate but equal” (it wasn’t), these laws had some success spreading to non-Confederate areas and even began to be introduced by Woodrow Wilson at the Federal Government level by the time of the early teens.

Birth-of-a-nation-klan-and-black-man

Meanwhile, the “Lost Cause” had been successful in changing the narrative about the war. It wasn’t about slavery, but about a noble, if anachronistic, “way of life” that the South maintained while the North progressed into capitalism and industrialization. The South had only wanted to preserve its honorable and decent lifestyle when it was forced to secede. This is the narrative that Thomas Dixon’s book and play The Clansman repeated, and it was read and accepted widely by white people all over the country. Another believer was Simmons, who had been a failure at most of what he had put his hand to in life: medical student, minister, soldier, yet he had retained a sense of destiny in himself. Simmons was also a member of several fraternal organizations, and when he decided in 1915 to “revive” the KKK, this was the model he chose, as opposed to a secret terror group.

Nowadays, men who join fraternal societies like the Masons or the Oddfellows are increasingly rare and rather marginal figures. But, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, these kinds of groups were dominant. Men associated, outside of their homes, with other men for professional and social reasons, usually under the auspices of an “Order” of some kind with ritual trappings, sometimes with costumes and secret signals. It’s been estimated that at the high point there were some 2000 separate lodge organizations in the USA, with a membership that may have extended to 40% of the population. In addition to networking and social activities, lodges organized charitable work and provided religious and secular educational events. While fraternal organizations were declining by the beginning of World War One, this tradition was still far stronger than it is today.

All which gives the Second Klan a rather different flavor than the First, and I think has led some historians to mis-read its nature. Writers at the time and soon afterward often confused the two Klans, and assumed that the membership of Simmons’s organization was poor, uneducated, Southern, and rural. Examination of membership rosters and other information challenged this idea, beginning in the 1960s. It turned out that many members were middle class, urban, and educated. The largest numerical membership was in Indiana and the highest per capita was in Oregon – definitely not the South. A new school of “Klan revisionists” arose who started taking this into account and doing regional studies of unlikely Klan strongholds like Buffalo, New York, El Paso, Texas, and Salt Lake City. They found that Klan concerns often lined up with Progressive issues like temperance and educational reform.

Ku_Klux_Klan_Virgina_1922_Parade

I personally think the revisionists wound up going a little too far in starting to see the Second Klan as “nice” people. They started to argue that white supremacy was only one of several interests of the organization, and that most of its methods were above-ground and legal. Well, it depends where you look. Nancy MacLean (who is sometimes called a “re-revisionsist”) studied the KKK in Georgia and found that they were engaged in lynching and terror operations after all. They just did it with the collusion of powerful middle class lawyers and judges and police officials who conveniently looked the other way. Illegal actions like cross burnings on other people’s property, public tarring and feathering, or vandalism were consistently a part of its activities even outside the South. At the high point of the Klan’s power, Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1924, a law explicitly written to limit the number of “non-white” (including Southern and Eastern European) entrants into the country. This was a triumph for their racist position on immigration. And that “educational reform” the KKK was so good about supporting usually meant closing down Catholic schools, because Catholicism was an enemy of “democracy” as the Klan defined it.

But, getting back to Simmons and 1915: he had gathered a few friends to his new organization, but he waited until December to announce its formation in local papers. Specifically, he waited until “The Birth of a Nation” was scheduled to premiere in Atlanta theaters. According to several historians, the Klan consistently timed its recruitment drives to coincide with screenings of the movie. Nancy MacLean found that the KKK had a hard time getting up to speed in Athens, Georgia, until “a much-touted return engagement” of the movie in 1921. The Klan and its successor organizations continued using it as a recruiting device, right up to the video revolution of the 80s and 90s, according to Dick Lehr and Thomas Martinez. It may still be used, for all I know. Apart from that, Simmons adopted much of the imagery of the movie, without worrying over whether it was historically accurate. The original Klan had not used the burning cross as a symbol, that was an invention of Dixon in The Clansman, based on his idea of Scottish clans burning St. Andrews’ crosses. D.W. Griffith was the one who invented the symbol of a burning Latin cross, which remains a powerful symbol of hatred today.

Birth_of_a_Nation_theatrical_poster

I’m sure this was an unintended consequence, so far as D.W. Griffith was concerned. So far as I know, neither he nor Thomas Dixon condoned the new Klan or its use of their art to foster hate. I’m not trying to present a simple argument of causality here, either: blaming D.W. Griffith for lynchings in the South in the 1920s is equivalent to blaming violent video games for school shootings, and I don’t mean to go that route. What I do think is that modern film fans, critics, and historians have to make an effort to get the easy stuff right. A movie that propagandizes for the KKK is not a “neutral” work of art that can be removed from its place in history. It was wildly popular for some of the same reasons that the Second Klan was popular. That isn’t pretty, but it is our past, and the more “important” we judge “The Birth of a Nation” to be in film history, the more we need to confront what that importance says about all the movies that followed it. Film historians and classic film fans often tend to romanticize their subject matter, but it’s bound up in all the same problems we see in society as a whole. That’s what looking at the past through the lens of its visual representation means to me.

I don’t usually give sources for my posts, but since this was one of the most heavily researched ones I’ve done, here are the references:

Greer, John Michael. Inside a Magical Lodge: Group Ritual in the Western Tradition. St Paul: Llewellyn, 1998.

Horowitz, David A, ed. Inside the Klavern: The Secret History of the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s. Carbondale, Il: Southern Illinois University Press, 1999.

Kirschenbaum, Robert. “Klan and Commonwealth: The Ku Klux Klan in Kentucky, 1921-1928.” Master’s thesis, University of Kentucky, 2005.

Lay, Shawn. Hooded Knights on the Niagara: The Ku Klux Klan in Buffalo, New York. New York and London: NYU Press, 1995.

_____, ed. The Invisible Empire in the West: Toward a New Historical Appraisal of the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1992.

Lehr, Dick. The Birth of a Nation: How a Legendary Filmmaker and a Crusading Editor Reignited America’s Civil War. New York: Public Affairs, 2014.

MacLean, Nancy. Behind the Mask of Chivalry: The Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Martinez, Thomas & John Gunther. Brotherhood of Murder. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988.

Moore, Leonard. Citizen Klansmen: The Ku Klux Klan in Indiana, 1921-1928. Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press, 1991.

Daydreams (1915)

Daydreams

Alternate Titles: Gryosi, Грёзы

Evgeni Bauer presages “Vertigo” with this film about death, identity, grief, and madness. A man is suffering due to the recent death of his young wife, and lops off a piece of her corpse’s hair to remember her by. Inconsolable, he wanders the streets aimlessly, until he spots a woman who is her exact double. He follows her to a theater, and watches the performance, in which she plays the part of a ghost in a cemetery. He reaches out to her, distracting the audience from the performance, then goes after her backstage, finding out where she lives. He visits her with flowers, and she receives his warm attentions with mutual interest. He tells his friend that his has found happiness again, then to his surprise his new love begins a flirtation with the friend! Unable to bear the contradictions between the ghost of his wife and the reality of the actress lookalike, he descends into madness, which is aggravated by cruel taunts from the woman. By the end, driven to the breaking point, he snaps when she starts using the lock of hair as a prop in a jest at his expense.

Daydreams1

So, we’ve got another Bauer movie from 1915, and as usual, it’s fascinating. We get the usual highly decorated Bauer sets, shot as usual from a 30-degree angle, with cutting to close-ups within scenes, and use of depth and camera movement. We also get some really nice location shots of a Russian city (I’m guessing Moscow or Petrograd, but I haven’t found a definite answer), including a very interesting tracking shot that follows the main character down the street, then halts as the woman passes, then tracks backward when he turns to follow her. From the motion, I’m guessing that this was done from an automobile, running at very low speed. The other visually interesting sequence is the theater, which includes a large number of extras (at least twenty to thirty), who are seen from front and back. They appear to be “in on” the movie, and keep to character, while some of the passersby on the street stop to stare at the camera. The theater sequence involved several camera angles, and used stage effects to show ghosts rising from the grave and smoke. The “real” ghost of Elena is represented through double exposures, ala Méliès, and sometimes shows up while her double is on the screen. It’s overall a fairly economical production, with much of the action taking place in the main character’s living room, but nevertheless surprises with its advanced techniques.

As far as the story goes, I think it may translate to modern audiences better than “The 1002nd Ruse” or “Twilight of a Woman’s Soul.” The actress seems a bit too shamelessly wanton and cruel to be believed, but I’m inclined to read this as being seen from the perspective of a man whose perceptions are distorted by grief and madness. He, after all, is demanding that she re-fashion herself to “be” his dead wife, when she is clearly her own person with her own motivations and interests. Not the most reasonable way to establish or maintain a love affair. No doubt at a certain point she feels the need to reassert her own identity, and to demand to be treated as her own person. And who would love someone who was constantly moping around about his dead wife? This is somewhat strengthened by the fact that the actor (Alexander Wyrubow, who as far as I know never worked in movies again) is rather a ham, over-acting when sulking, reaching out for his new interest, and when “going mad” with jealousy. It works for the story of someone with a tenuous grip on reality, but also seems to emphasize why the actress isn’t thrilled with her new relationship.

Director: Evgeni Bauer

Camera: Boris Zavelev

Cast: Alexander Wyrubow, N. Chernobaeva

Run Time: 33 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Cockfight, no. 2 (1894)

Cockfight no2

Don’t ask me what happened to no. 1, apparently it was worn out, necessitating this remake to supply eager Kinetoscope exhibitors with a popular subject matter. It really does appear to be about 30 seconds worth of an actual cockfight, framed exactly as the stage for the “Boxing Cats” had been. There are two men behind the cage, but unlike Professor Welton, they do not need to assure that the birds keep fighting, the birds appear happy to comply without encouragement. Rather, the men are making bets, or possibly giving a performance of making bets, in order to supply the correct atmosphere for the viewer. Cockfighting, like boxing, was illegal in most states and regarded as a “blood sport” at the time. Of the two, boxing has become an accepted if somewhat dangerous sport, while cock fighting is even more heavily disapproved of, as a form of cruelty towards animals. Thus, audiences today may be just as fascinated by the forbidden subject as were the audiences of the nineteenth century.

Director: WKL Dickson

Camera: William Heise

Run Time: 35 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Caicedo with Pole (1894)

Caicedo with Pole

This is a rare Kinetoscope which was shot “on location,” perhaps because the antics of Venezuelan tightrope walker Juan Caicedo were simply too grandiose for the cramped conditions of the “Black Maria.” At any rate, it stands out simply by being out-of-doors. Caicedo bounces on his slackly-strung tightrope, almost as though it were a trampoline, managing a flip and alternates landing on his feet with a sitting position (ouch!). Perhaps because of the frame-rate, the picture seems slowed down, giving the sense of a low-gravity performance. In other ways, such as composition and content, it is similar to other performances by circus performers that we have seen in from the studio.

Director: WKL Dickson

Camera: William Heise

Run Time: 35 secs

You can watch it for free: here (with music) or here (no music)

Carmencita (1894)

Carmencita

This early Kinetoscope film is a simple, brief clip from the dance routine of a dancer named “Carmencita,” who gives a performance for the camera of a dance she was performing at a New York music hall. It has been suggested that she was the first woman to appear in a motion picture, and that the film drew criticism for “lewdness.” She smiles and seems to enjoy dancing, which may have caused some scandal, although I suspect that her twirls, which occasionally lift her dress slightly above her ankles, and the final flourish, in which her upper skirt is pulled up to slightly reveal the complex under garment that holds it in place, would have been more shocking. In the Internet age, this movie has obtained another odd distinction: it is listed as movie “tt0000001” on the Internet Movie Database, presumably the first movie listed there.

 

Director: WKL Dickson

Camera: William Heise

Run Time: 21 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Athlete with Wand (1894)

Athlete with Wand

This short Kinetoscope moving picture is pretty much what its title suggests: a man in athletic garb performs some simple exercises with a long stick or staff. The point, surely, was simply to demonstrate that the process worked well enough to record a variety of motion for an audience to replay. The interesting part is that for some reason, there is a large dog in the lower right-hand corner of the screen. I can’t recall having seen this dog (possibly a black lab? I’m not an expert on dog breeds) in any other movie shot at the Black Maria, so possibly it belonged to the “athlete” brought in for this shoot. I’d like to think however, that it was a kind of mascot who hung around the Edison Studio, and maybe even had a cute nickname like “Black Maria.”

Director: WKL Dickson

Camera: William Heise

Run Time: 25 secs

You can watch it for free: here.