Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Month: April, 2015

1915 and the Movie Star System


Occasionally, in my reviews of early cinema, I’ve made comments like “this was before the star system was in place.” But what do we mean when we talk about a “star system?” When did it start and why? And how did it become so dominant that movie stars made gigantic salaries, and for a time, at least in the 1930s and 40s, seemed to transcend royalty and become truly gods and goddesses? By studying film from the Age of Attractions through the dawn of the Silent Classical Era, we have an opportunity to observe the birth of the movie star, and consider its trajectory.

In the earliest days of cinema, established celebrities like Annie Oakley and Eugen Sandow both exploited and were exploited by film in order to preserve the record of their accomplishments and lend moving pictures an aura of “respectability,” through its documentation of educational and popular subjects. Dancing stars like Annabelle Moore made good subjects, because their art involved movement, and could be shown without synchronized sound, or any sound. Audiences in remote locations could see people made famous in New York or Boston, and get a chance to get “close” to figures they had only read about before. William McKinley seems to have been the first Presidential hopeful to exploit the movies before election, another example of the growing power of the medium.

Of course, there was an already extant star system in live theater. Theater stars weren’t (and aren’t) the same thing as movie stars, but they were trained actors, and when the demand for narrative film boomed during the Nickelodeon Era, they were of course drawn on as experienced actors with potential box office draw. However, there was a perception (true or not) that this could “hurt” a serious theater actor’s reputation – the movies were still associated with low-class entertainment and not accepted as an art form – so there was resistance within the industry. By the same token, the more “progressive” film studios wanted theater stars to help legitimate the moving pictures and draw a higher class of audience, so they were willing to pay enough to lure at least a few for what was, after all, relatively easy work compared to touring around giving the same performances night after night.


Meanwhile, about halfway through the Nickelodeon Era (say, 1909-1911), there was an odd innovation in American filmmaking: cameramen started moving the camera a little closer to the action. Remember that the zoom lens, although invented in 1902, was not yet in wide use in movie making. In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen a zoom since I started this project, although I’d be happy to be corrected if somebody’s memory is sharper than mine. Anyway, the point is that generally if you wanted to see more detail on something, you had to physically move the camera closer to it. This had the effect, which we hardly notice today, of cutting up the actors so you can’t see their whole bodies – feet are cut off or legs up to the knees or further. But, it also meant that you could see the faces of actors much more clearly.

This change, so subtle that it’s hard for modern audiences even to notice it, had considerable impact at the time. The critics hated it. The established standard was to frame the picture to show a “stage” as in a theater on which the actors would enter, perform, and exit. Closing in meant that you weren’t seeing the “whole stage,” and several complained about not seeing the stage floor. Apart from that, you were dissecting people’s bodies when you didn’t show them head to toe. This was considered “unnatural” by sophisticated movie-goers. Luckily for us, apparently the unsophisticated masses paying their nickels to see the flickers didn’t mind so much.

The other side of this, again, was seeing faces more clearly, being able to distinguish features and expressions. This meant that the tradition of pantomime began to be replaced with more subtle use of the actor’s faces to show emotion. Actors could stop flailing their arms and using exaggerated body language, and perform in a more natural manner. More than that, it meant that audiences began to recognize their favorite actors, even without the benefit of credits to give them names, and started to ask exhibitors when they would get another film showing “The Biograph Girl,” for example.

Ben Turpin.

Ben Turpin.

One of the first to benefit from this was a comedian named Ben Turpin. He had crossed eyes as a result of an accident in childhood, and was very good at making silly faces. Once movies started being made where you could see how funny he looked, he rapidly became a sought-after property and made a much better living than most movie actors at the time. He went so far as to take out an insurance policy against his eyes ever becoming uncrossed.

It’s important to note here that the close up had been used before this, as in the case of “The Great Train Robbery” (1903) and that Méliès had replicated a zoom by moving the camera closer to his disembodied head as early as “The Man with the Rubber Head” (1901) and probably before that. Seeing actors’ faces wasn’t “invented” in 1909 or any such nonsense, but it gradually became more of a standard, as did inter-cutting close ups to the point where they become major narrative elements, as in the case of “The Golden Chance,” by the end of 1915. As audiences acclimated to a more intimate standard of photography, they increasingly became fascinated by the faces of the people on the screen.

You can track this change in the pages of “Moving Picture World,” one of the first important industry periodicals, which published from 1907 to 1927. In the early issues, there are few illustrations, and very few actors’ names. Even the ads, meant to promote pictures to exhibitors would emphasize the humor, educational value, or novelty of the movie, and rarely include names or pictures of people in it. Over time, this shifts, with more ads showing stills, and increasing numbers of faces, in particular, shown. By 1915, you will start seeing familiar names and faces, with the fact that Charlie Chaplin stars in a film being given precedence over the reputation of the studio or the quality of its innovations. Meanwhile, other publications had begun to spring up that were intended for movie fans, and these heavily emphasized beautiful head shots of famous stars. The star system, while not as powerful as it would become in later decades, was firmly established at this time.

Golden Chance (1915)

Golden Chance

This, along with “Carmen” and “The Cheat,” was one of the films a very busy Cecil B. DeMille made at the end of 1915. It barely managed a release date before the New Year, in fact, and was probably mostly seen by audiences of 1916. It is another small-scale domestic melodrama, not a historical epic, and explores issues of class and gender, as they were popularly understood at the time. DeMille was no radical, of course, but he seems to have wanted to appeal to a progressive spirit, and probably tailored his story to address issues that pro-censorship forces such as church activists and women’s groups considered important at the time. It also displays the growing talents of both DeMille and cameraman Alvin Wyckoff. We see taught editing, many close-ups, good use of lighting and especially darkness, and some inventive camera angles as well.

The story has elements of the “Lost Girl” tale in which an innocent girl is deceived into moving from a wholesome environment to the city, only to be victimized or led into temptation. However, we begin the story not with her leaving her loving parents, but five years later, when she is living in a tenement with her alcoholic husband, a former day-laborer. The Girl in this case (the word is consistently capitalized in the titles) is Cleo Ridgely, who was in “Joan the Woman” the next year and did several “Jean – Girl Detective” shorts as well. The husband is Horace B. Carpenter, who was in DeMille’s “The Virginian” and “Carmen.” We are introduced to them, and the rest of the cast, through the device of intertitles followed by brief cameo shots not otherwise in the picture. These actually serve not only as credits, but also to kick-start the plot as well. Although Cleo is introduced as if she were a wholesome farm girl – leaning out her tenement window to catch the sun’s rays on her face and tending to a neglected potted plant on the windowsill – we learn that she is actually the fallen daughter of a judge, whose parents disowned her when she married below her station. As the story begins we see that her good-for-nothing husband is drinking up all their grocery money. So, she looks for a job.

Cleo Ridgely

And it is this which brings her “Golden Chance” to work for a society lady whose husband hopes to dupe the hero (a very handsome Wallace Reid, who had been less perfect as Don Juan in “Carmen” and had also co-starred with Ridgely in “The Chorus Lady”) into a major investment. The pair decide that if they dress up the Girl, she can charm him to the point where he doesn’t know what he’s signing, and convince her to take the chance to play Cinderella for a weekend. Here, the movie departs from the “Lost Girl” model and becomes something a bit more modern. In fact, it reminded me of many Depression-era films where poor girls are given a chance to mix with high society and daydream about being rich and glamorous, which of course gave audiences the chance to dream with them. While the teens aren’t recalled as a time of economic hardship today, the reality is that there were plenty of poverty-stricken viewers who would respond to this at the time.


It goes all too well, with Reid proposing to Ridgely and agreeing to invest, when Ridgely’s husband shows up to rob the joint. Pretty soon, the truth is out and Reid is angry at being deceived, and poor Cleo wanders out into the night in her old clothes, sleeping on a park bench next to an old bum. When she returns home, her husband has a new idea to extort money from Reid. They send him a note telling him to come help her, which he is inclined to ignore until, paradoxically, he finds her secretly written “Don’t Come” written inside the note. This demonstrates that she is not part of the ruse. So he goes there, but takes the precaution of having his servant go for the police after five minutes. There is a tense scene, told almost entirely in a series of rapid close-ups, followed by a fight staged in a single wide-angle overhead shot. The change in visual style is jarring, and it serves well to build the audience’s excitement at this stage. The police rush in and save the day.

The “Moving Picture World” gave this movie a glowing review in its issue of January 8, 1916, and, like me, made special note of the effective lighting techniques and the “modern” melodramatic storyline. Over at Movies Silently, Fritzi Kramer has given it 81% and also noted the appealing lead actors as well as the lighting, showing that the film has held up well for the past century.

Director: Cecil B. DeMille

Camera: Alvin Wyckoff

Starring: Cleo Ridgely, Wallace Reid, Horace B. Carpenter, Ernest Joy, Edythe Chapman, Raymond Hatton

Run Time: 1 hr, 13 Mins

I have not been able to find this for free online. If you know where to find it, please comment. Otherwise, try your local library!

Beach Party?

I’ve been a bit remiss in announcing this, but I’ve been so busy with my 19th-century movies! I’ll be participating in…


I pulled a bit of a funny one – I’ll be reviewing the 1895 Lumiere movie “La Mer,” which is only fifty seconds long, but surely has a secure claim on being the “oldest Beach Party movie.” Edison’s team never did manage to get the ocean into the Black Maria, after all. See you there!

Boxing Cats (1894)

Boxing Cats

This may well be the original funny Internet cat video – made 100 years before the World Wide Web even existed! This is a short video of two cats in odd harnesses and miniature boxing gloves, being made to fight on a stage at the Black Maria studio. It will remind regular readers of the “Boxing Kangaroo,” made a year later in Germany. This film is unusual for the Kinetoscope period, in that the camera has been moved much closer to the action, probably because our subjects are so small. Behind them sits their trainer, Professor Henry Welton, who seems to have specialized in animal acts. He holds the cats upright and keeps them from flying out of the miniature boxing ring, smiling through his mustache all the while. Note that we only see his head and his hands, making this an early close up. Later critics would argue that audiences found close ups disturbing, because they presented only “parts” of a human body in an “unnatural” way, but so far as I know, no one ever objected to it in “The Boxing Cats.”

Director: W.K.L. Dickson

Camera: William Heise

Run Time: 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

April 1915

In April 1915, Jack Johnson lost his heavyweight title after holding it for more than six years.

In April 1915, Jack Johnson lost his heavyweight title after holding it for more than six years.

As the spring rains fall on the Northern Hemisphere, the First World War continues to rage in Europe, while Revolution drags on in Mexico and the baseball season starts in the United States. For more specifics, look below for a roundup of news items in the headlines for April 1915.

World War I: On April 22nd the Second Battle of Ypres begins. It will continue for more than a month as both sides try to establish control over the Belgian town of Ypres, and will claim more than 100,000 casualties on both sides. It marks the first large-scale use of poison gas by the Germans. On April 25, the Gallipoli campaign is initiated with landings at Anzac and Cape Helles by British, Australian, New Zealand, and French troops. This campaign against the Ottoman Empire continues through January, 1916, and claims almost half a million casualties.

Sports: On April 5th boxer Jack Johnson is defeated by “Great White Hope” Jess Willard at Havana, Cuba. Jackson has held the title of heavyweight champion since 1908, the first African American to do so.

Labor: In Vienna, from April 12 to 13th, representatives of socialist parties of Germany, Austria, and Hungary meet for the Vienna Socialist Conference, as an extension of the Second International. Among the representatives is Friedrich Ebert, future Social Democratic President of Germany. Although its resolutions are critical of the war, the Conference calls for a peace that “would not humiliate any of the peoples” and the parties represented continued to support their governments, contributing to the eventual dissolution of the International over the issue of support for war bonds.

Human Rights Violations: On April 24, the deportation of Armenian notables from Istanbul begins, marking the beginning of what will become the Armenian Genocide in Turkey. Turkey continues today to deny the use of the word “genocide” as an accurate description for actions which caused the deaths of 1 and a half million Armenians.

Diplomacy: Italy signs the Treaty of London, secretly agreeing to join the First World War on the Allied side, although they remain formally a part of the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary. This was technically a defensive alliance, and the Italian government reasoned that the Central Powers had begun the war by attacking, thus freeing Italy from obligations to fight on their side.

Movies:The Tramp,” starring Charlie Chaplin, released April 11. This will be the most profitable Chaplin film to date, to be outdone later in the year by “Burlesque on Carmen.”

Born: Harry Morgan (later known for roles in the television shows “Dragnet” and “MASH“), April 10; and Anthony Quinn (who was in “La Strada” by Fellini and “Zorba the Greek”), on April 21.

1002nd Ruse (1915)


Alternate Title: Tysycha vtoraya khitrost

I suppose it had to happen sooner or later; there was bound to be one film by Evgeni Bauer that disappointed me. After all, he set such a high standard with movies like “After Death” and “Silent Witnesses,” not all of his work could be so great. Still, when you love a film maker, it hurts to run across a miss in his list of hits. This movie is an attempt at comedy which didn’t even elicit a chuckle from me. Apparently, it’s based on a stage play, and I’d be willing to guess that it could work better with dialogue. The plot is simply that an old man reads the book “1001 Feminine Ruses” and spends the rest of the movie congratulating himself on being one up on his wife – until, of course, she invents a new one. It’s the sort of comedy that I’m not crazy about in general, since there are no sympathetic characters and everyone is basically nasty to one another, but I find that “situational” humor like this is especially weak in silent viewing. The movie is mercifully short, and Bauer still shows a degree of cinematic competence, but there’s nothing really brilliant here. He makes use of a keyhole matte to establish the husband’s spying, and there’s some nice exterior footage of a Russian city (Petrograd? Moscow? I’m not sure), but most of the shots are basic square stages and the camera never moves.

Director: Evgeni Bauer

Starring: Lina Bauer, S. Rassatov, Sergei Kvastnitskii

Run Time: 14 Min, 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Buffalo Dance (1894)


For the last movie of mydancesequence, I’m returning to the Kinetoscope period of Edison Studios, for a movie that was shot on the same day as “Annie Oakley.” Here, we have a group of Sioux men in ostensibly traditional dress, performing a dance in the cramped confines of the “Black Maria” studio, with drummers visible behind them on the stage. It is very similar to the previously-reviewed “Sioux Ghost Dance,” although in this case history has recorded the names of the performers: Hair Coat, Parts His Hair, and Last Horse. All of them were performers for Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, so it’s possible that these authentic-sounding names were actually adopted for stage performances. In that sense, of course this is a movie that exploits Native Americans and the fascination of European Americans with them at the time, and these movies were among the first filmed examples of this, although it would soon become an industry in its own right.

Director: W.K.L. Dickson

Camera: William Heise

Run Time: 16 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Bauerntanz Zweier Kinder (1895)

Alternate Titles: Italienische Bauerntanz, Italian Folk Dance


I’ve given in to the idea that this week is all about short dance movies, so I thought I’d include another one from the Winterprogramm of Max Skladanowsky. This time, instead of a woman in flowing robes, we get two children in traditional “folk” dress. They move about quite a bit, somewhat alternating between dancing, hopping and running, and they go offscreen occasionally, the requirement of confining themselves to the stage probably being a bit difficult with all that energy. I might translate the title as “Peasant Dance of Two Children,” rather than “Folk Dance,” but the idea is that it hearkens to a more pastoral and innocent condition.

Director: Max Skladanowski

Run Time: 15 secs

You can watch it for free: here (first film in set).


Annabelle Serpentine Dance (1895)

Annabelle Serpentine

Continuing with my theme of 19th-Century dance videos for this week (not what I had planned, but sometimes you follow a lead where it takes you), here is a movie of the same Annabelle Moore I talked about yesterday, taken one year later and formally identified as a “serpentine” dance, as in the case of the German film reviewed on Monday. In this case, we are fortunate to have a hand-tinted color copy preserved, often shown as one of the first examples of color motion picture film. The color adds to the ethereal and unreal qualities of the dance, which again emphasizes the flowing robes of the dancer. The commentator on “Edison: The Invention of the Movies” makes the interesting point that these types of dances were popular film subjects because you could start from anywhere and end anywhere, looping it several times without really interrupting the action or making it seem to jump. This differs it to more linear films like “A Train Coming into a Station” or early narratives like “A Sprinkler Sprinkled.”

Director: WKL Dickson

Camera: William Heise

Starring: Annabelle Moore

Run Time: 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Annabelle Butterfly Dance (1894)

Annabelle Butterfly

In the same year as Max Skladanowski produced his “Serpentinen Tanz,” W.K.L. Dickson did something very similar in the United States. Unlike the German film, however, this was not made to be projected on a screen, but rather run in a Kinetoscope, a kind of box with a peep-hole and a crank, that could be watched by a single viewer at a time. Another difference is that history tells us the name of the dancer, Annabelle Moore, who appeared as a dancer in many later motion pictures. Her costume is a bit less elaborate, but the general theme is the same and clearly the idea was that a dance with a flowing costume would show off the ability of the camera to capture movement.

Director: W.K.L. Dickson

Camera: William Heise

Run Time: 34 secs

You can watch it for free: here.