Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Month: May, 2015

The Birth of a Nation, Part V

For this entry in my series on D.W. Griffith’s 1915 epic, I want to speak about the contemporary reception to the movie. Up to now, I’ve been arguing that the importance of the movie has been over-rated, often at the expense of an honest assessment of its content and what it says about the history of cinema. It wasn’t as big a technical breakthrough as has often been claimed, nor was it the “first feature film” (it wasn’t even Griffith’s first feature film), nor the “first blockbuster” or really much of the first anything. So, why do so many historians and filmmakers seem to regard it as such a big deal?

MPP Birth Sale

Well, part of that answer starts with the media campaign and critical response in 1915. To confirm just how big a deal it was at the time, I went and looked at the Moving Picture World issues for the end of 1915 and searched for its name. The movie actually had its first screenings in January, and officially premiered in LA in February, and movies at this time usually ran for a week or two at most, so just finding mentions of it being held over in New York week after week in October, November, and December was already an indicator of just how big a smash it was. There were still cities where it was opening for the first time as well, and these would list prices from 50 cents to $2 for seats (a lot of money in 1915) and packed houses of 2000 people or more. Many of these people, it was presumed, had already seen the picture in neighboring cities, or when traveling to larger urban centers. It broke records for screenings and attendance in various places during this time. In October, a story broke about a distributor paying $250,000 for the rights to it in 16 states, which was reported as “the largest transaction ever conducted for the rights to a traveling attraction in the history of the American theater” (later stories suggest that this may have been exaggerated).

MPP Simplex ad

Beyond the box office, I found that “The Birth of a Nation” was also treated as a major artistic achievement. Even passing mentions of the film frequently referred to it as “the big Griffith spectacle,” “this wonderful feature,” a “masterpiece,” or “an immense picture creation.” Studios compared their new releases to it, claiming them as “second only to The Birth of a Nation” or a movie with action that “outdoes ‘The Birth of a Nation’ in thrills.” One film was released as “a Birth of a Nation among children’s films,” and a new Mutual comedy was touted as “The Mirth of a Nation.” The Simplex projector company proudly stated that its machines were “used exclusively” for screenings of “The Birth of a Nation,” which were referred to as “the greatest production in the world.” The movie appealed to people who didn’t usually praise film at the time: the Minneapolis Superintendent of Schools is quoted as saying that “all children should see such pictures” and a Wisconsin pastor “thanks God” he lives in an age when he can see it.

MPP Thank God

All of this despite the fact that the movie met with resistance from the NAACP everywhere it opened, and that African Americans tried to get it banned anywhere they had a voice. The Moving Picture World, of course, was strongly opposed to censorship, and it’s even possible that to some degree their support of the film was a statement in favor of freedom of expression. But, the word “censorship” didn’t have the stigma then that it does today, a great many people did feel that there should be some kind of state control over what could be presented to audiences in theaters. Yet, again and again, and in spite of some strident arguments for the potential harm that could be caused by the racist material in the movie, white city counselors, official censor boards, and higher government officials passed the film, allowing its performance despite the objections of a part of their constituency.

MPP Mirth

The other aspect of all this that seems puzzling is that, when I look at the film now, it really isn’t all that impressive; least of all by comparison to other movies coming out in the US at the end of 1915. Maybe in February and March of that year there wasn’t much to beat it, but by the last months you’ve got “Carmen,” “The Cheat,” “The Italian,” and “Alias Jimmy Valentine,” all much more technically advanced, visually sophisticated, and narratively complex movies. Yet people at the time were still holding it up as the measure of cinematic greatness, and apparently being taken seriously, to judge again by box office success.

I may need several more essays to discuss usefully why this should be the case, but it begins with two points: white middle class audiences at the time lived in an environment where there was “nothing wrong” with the racial views the movie espoused, and Griffith successfully exploited the desire of white Americans everywhere to celebrate their national and racial pride. Reports of the record-breaking screenings in Portland, Oregon make much of “a score of horsemen clad in Ku Klux regalia [who] were a common sight on the streets” during the run (it will be recalled that Oregon had the highest per capital Klan membership in the nation only a few years later). The movie was shown at elaborate “movie palaces” or high-class dramatic theaters, with a full orchestra and uniformed ushers, not in second-rate nickelodeons. Moreover, it was one of the most explicitly nationalist features to come out of the US in that year. Other nations, especially Italy and Russia, had gotten in ahead in terms of making nationalist epics, and the Italian ones, at least, had been released in the US to the amazement of viewers. But they were the stories of foreigners, and I think Americans wanted to feel that their history was as important as the Punic Wars. Griffith gave them that, and whether his telling of it was true or not, it did conform with the historical myths that many believed, or wanted to believe, about their country. That this meant trampling on the dignity of a minority was far less important at a time in American history when African American enfranchisement was still tenuous, at best.

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Birth of a Nation (1915)

This year is the 100th anniversary of the highly problematic, yet historically significant, movie “The Birth of a Nation” by D.W. Griffith. I’ve been writing an essay a month to discuss it, because it needs more than a simple “review” in the style I typically use to analyze it and its place in film history.

The result of this is that there are now several “Birth of a Nation” posts on this blog, which is getting confusing. I’m creating this “Index” post as the go-to place for access to all of them. Check back for updates.

House in Kolomna (1913)

Alternate Titles: Little House in Kolomna, Domik v Kolomne

 House in Kolomna1

Ivan Mosjoukine is rightly known for the diversity of the roles he’s played: I’ve now seen him both as the Devil and as a transvestite soldier! In this light romp based on a poem by Pushkin, the young daughter of a widow is carrying on an affair with Ivan, during the occasional breaks she gets from Mama’s watchful eye. When Mama asks her to go out and find a “cheap cook,” she seizes her chance and goes straight to her soldier. He agrees to dress up as a woman and goes home with her. Of course, the new cook proves to be incompetent at cooking and other womanly duties like sewing, giving the widow massages, or leaving the house (since he’s afraid he’ll be recognized). That’s OK, though, because the daughter is always there to bail her/him out of trouble, and they get to carry on their lovemaking in her room whenever Mama’s not around. One day, the cook fakes sick to get out of going to Mass, but Mama thinks maybe “she’s” planning to rob the joint, so sneaks back and catches “her” shaving, which practically gives her an apoplexy. The movie ends with a comedic moral about cheap cooks and men wearing skirts.

 House in Kolomna

I found this to be a pretty effective “situational comedy,” not so different to gender-bending comedies from the US of the time, but possibly a bit more feminist. Why feminist? Well, the person in control of this whole situation is the daughter, not the man, and even in the bedroom scene, she clearly places herself in the dominant position. Mosjoukine gets into his role and exaggerates both feminine and masculine body language for comedic effect. The liner notes claim that he enjoyed himself so much that during outdoor scenes he attracted crowds of astonished people. The movie was also shot by Ladislaw Starevich, better known for his animated movies, and directed by Pyotr Chardynin, of “The Queen of Spades.” Once again, I would assume that the targeted audience was probably familiar with the source material, but here we see an unusual number of intertitles to clarify, and also to slip in some sly jokes here and there. Probably these are lines from Pushkin that the audience would have expected to see; even with my severely flawed Russian I caught that some of the intertitles rhymed, or made plays on language.

 House in Kolomna2

Incidentally, Fritzi Kramer, over at Movies Silently, also recently reviewed this film. Check out her thoughts here.

Director: Pyotr Chardynin

Camera: Ladislaw Starevich

Starring: Ivan Mosjoukine, Sofia Golovskaya, Praskovya Maksimova

Run Time: 30 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Classic Movie History Blogathon

history-2015-flicker-alley-06

This was a blogathon I could hardly resist taking part in. Movies Silently, Silver Screenings, and Once Upon a Screen are hosting, and Flicker Alley is sponsoring, an examination of film history, the reason this blog exists! Flicker Alley, a distributor of high-quality home releases of classic movies, is offering a giveaway of their new 3D Rarities Blu Ray collection. If you’re interested in that: follow this link and subscribe to their newsletter. Otherwise, the fun part for me and you will be reading all the movie history posts, come June 26-28!

The tough part was deciding what topic to write about, since almost everything I do here is about “Classic Movie History.” I finally settled on director Raoul Walsh‘s 1915 release “Regeneration.” Walsh is a director I haven’t gotten around to discussing yet, and “Regeneration” is significant both as an early feature-length gangster movie, and because it was lost for many decades before being rediscovered in the 1970s. I plan to post on Friday, June 26, as part of the first day’s examination of early film history. I hope you’ll join me and also check out the other historical posts in this event!

Merchant Bashkirov’s Daughter (1913)

I’m not even sure where to begin with this Russian film from the Volga region. It’s certainly not like anything else I’ve seen from Russia up to this point, or from anywhere else, for that matter, although there are echoes of “Twilight of a Woman’s Soul,” perhaps, but in a more flamboyantly sensationalistic manner. The story begins prosaically enough: the young daughter of a prominent merchant is in love with a young man below her station. One day Papa comes home and announces that he has found a good husband for her – one who looks pretty much just like him, in age and demeanor. She, and the mother, are horrified, but powerless to do anything about it. When she brings the young man over to break the news, Papa returns home unexpectedly, and in trying to hide him in her room, she accidentally kills him! Now the whole family is caught in a downward spiral of shame, cover-ups, and blackmail. The girl has to prostitute herself, until, at the end, she takes revenge on the men who have exploited her in a most violent manner.

 Merchant Bashkirov

To make this strange film even stranger, the liner notes claim that it was shot with the intention of blackmailing a real family named Bashkirov which had undergone a similar scandal. That’s all the more bizarre, considering the punishment meted out to the on-screen blackmailers, but it’s certainly possible. When the movie was released in Russia, apparently, the name was changed, “because the heroine’s surname is identical to that of some well-known merchants in a certain town on the Volga — by sheer coincidence of course.” But surely the details of the story were similar enough to the real-world scandal that all news-sensitive viewers must have known about it.

Gentlemen, I'm afraid your beard must wait outside.

Gentlemen, I’m afraid your beards must wait outside.

Technically, this film is about equal to movies made in the USA at the time, but not comparable to the work of Evgeni Bauer. There are close-ups to emphasize emotion, the camera pans (at one point passing through a false wall from one room into another) and there are some interesting compositions and one good use of a silhouette, but on the whole it’s your standard staged performance. The plot is easy enough to follow, although apparently there is missing footage, and one lengthy scene where the father talks to a man in uniform is difficult to interpret. The other thing I wanted to mention is the extreme facial hair on pretty much every male in the movie except for the young victim. Now, most of the Russian movies I’ve seen so far have featured beards (in fact, “The Brigand Brothers” used the length of the brothers’ beards as a narrative device to let you know where in the flashback a given scene fit), but this is a whole new level of beardedness. The beards in this movie at times threaten to take over the screen, leaving no room for the actors. This is definitely a movie for facial hair aficionados.

Director: Nikolai Larin

Camera: I. Dored

Run Time: 42 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Wedding Day (1912)

Wedding Day

Alternate Titles: Den’venchaniia, Yom Hakhupe

This somewhat mystifying short appears to be incomplete in its present form, although it could be that Russian/Eastern audiences would have known how to interpret it. It is included with the “Early Russian Cinema” DVD set, but was actually made in Poland and stars “a troupe of travelling Jewish players.” It does include a wedding scene, but this actually follows a scene showing the death of (what looks like) the bride, attended by her husband, a rabbi, and a random drunk whose relationship to the others is obscure. The final scene shows the bereaved husband, looking worse for wear and laughing at another drunk, who seems to be engaged in a conversation with a tree stump. Throughout, there are flashes of a flooded village, which may or may not be from another film altogether. The wedding scene looks quite authentic as an Eastern Jewish wedding, and may have had elements of the “exotic” for the largely urban Russian audiences it presumably targeted. A child in this scene frequently looks at the camera. There are two uses of close-ups, which come across as jump-cuts, in part because the angle of the camera shifts slightly between shots, and the camera pans slightly to track some characters as they move across the screen. There is also a brief sequence in which the dead woman appears in the room, apparently in ghostly form, although the special effect is very simplistically done. Unfortunately, I could find little about it, and the effect of it without more context is thoroughly surreal.

Director: Evgeni Slavinski

Camera: Evgeni Slavinski

Run Time: 12 Min

You can watch this for free: here. Thanks to commenter Muller Natacha for the link!

Lily of Belgium (1915)

Lily1

Alternative Titles: Liliya Bel’gii, The Suffering and Resurrection of Belgium, An Allegory of Today

Beetles fight a war against frogs and pine cones (!) in this child’s allegory of World War One by Ladislaw Starevich. Here, he gives us a live-action wraparound story in which a small child finds a crushed lily in a field and asks her grandfather what has happened. The granddad sees an opportunity for childish attentions and weaves the tale of how the beetles decided to wage war on their neighbors, chopping down the lily along the way to serve as a bridge for their mechanized forces. The story of the lily and the war are accomplished through more of Starevich’s deft animations of small dead animals. I found the propagandistic side of the movie a bit disappointing from someone capable of so much more creative storytelling, but the animation made up for it. As usual, the bad guys are generally more interesting than the good, with their miniature cars, beer steins, and cannon, although the scenes of pine cone jubilation after the armistice were entertaining as well. There’s not much information on this movie, even the year is uncertain on the DVD liner, and I’m not certain who the mysterious “Skobelev Committee” was who ostensibly funded it.

Director: Ladislaw Starevich

Camera: Ladislaw Starevich

Run Time: 10 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Christmas Eve (1913)

Christmas Eve

Alternate Titles: The Night Before Christmas, Ночь пе́ред Рождество́м, Noch pered Rozhdestvom

Thanks to the Devil, everyone will have a merry Christmas this year! This movie by Ladislaw Starevich shows that, in addition to a talented animator, he was a clever director of live action as well. The plot is based on a story by Nikolai Gogol, so once again Russian filmmakers draw on “high” cultural sources, but in this case, the result is rather more Earthy humor than we were getting from our Pushkin fare. The Devil meets up with a witch and goes for a ride on her broomstick, then a series of men come to visit her, each in sequence hiding in a sack to avoid detection by the others. Meanwhile, the witch’s son, apparently a straight-laced lad who is also the town blacksmith, calls on the woman he hopes to marry, a vain creature who demands that he procure the Tsaritsa’s shoes as a wedding gift. Our poor smith heads back home, where he finds all the sacks. He takes one with him to a man “who knows all the devils” and apparently dines by use of telekinesis. The man sees the Devil in his sack and tells him he doesn’t have far to go to find him. Befuddled, the smith returns to the road, where the Devil escapes from his sack and agrees to fly the smith to St Petersburg. Once there, the Devil shrinks down and hides in his pocket, then gives him some presentable clothes for his audience with Potemkin. Potemkin agrees to let him have the shoes and he returns to his village, beating the Devil for good measure and offering, along with the gifts, to let the father of the bride beat him. The fickle girl has lost interest in the shoes, but agrees to marry him anyway.

 Christmas Eve1

This is probably the best comedy I’ve seen among the Russian movies I’ve watched so far. Starevich is much more comfortable moving the camera and giving closer views than either Goncharov or Drankov, although he’s no Bauer. He relies more on effects than almost anyone I’ve seen from this period, outside of Méliès. In addition to multiple flying scenes, we get the Devil shrinking, the dumplings flying from the pot into the wise man’s mouth, and a few appearances and disappearances as well. Also, the Devil at one point “steals the moon,” which appears to be an actually working practical light, which he holds as if it were quite hot (which I would expect it to be!). There’s also a curious illuminated prop, which is part of a caroling procession. Finally, in the role of the Devil we get the famous Ivan Mosjoukine, one of the best actors of the period. He puts his all into the role of the degenerated man-beast, hopping about with monkey-like frolics. There’s lots to be enjoyed here, and although Starevich probably relied on the audience’s familiarity with the story, not knowing it beforehand won’t get in the way of watching it.

Director: Ladislaw Starevich

Camera: Ladislaw Starevich

Starring: Ivan Mosjoukine, Olga Obolenskaya, Lidiya Tridenskaya, Alexander Kheruvimov, Petr Lopukhin

Run Time: 41 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Dragonfly and the Ant (1913)

Dragonfly and the Ant

Alternate Titles: Strekoza i muravey, Стрекоза и муравей

Ladislaw Starevich is one of those figures in film history who is unknown by many, but loved by most who do know him. He more or less “invented” stop motion photography – that’s not to say he was necessarily the first to do it, but he figured it out without being taught by anyone. While working on a nature film on the battles performed by stag beetles, he discovered that they couldn’t survive under harsh movie lights, but that he could make animatable “puppets” from their corpses and shoot them one frame at a time, thus simulating the combat. He soon graduated from making faux-nature films to telling stories, using little dead insects as his performers. This story has been told many times since (usually in English as “The Ant and the Grasshopper,” but I’m sticking with the DVD edition’s title for now), and is a sort of morality fable in which the hard-working ant survives a cold winter because he’s prepared for it while a more fun-loving, lazy creature perishes for lack of foresight. Because it’s based on one of Aesop’s Fables, this more or less conforms with expectations that animation is a format for children’s movies, but this would not hold true for most of Starevich’s work. Even here, the cruelty of the ant in turning away his “relation” seems to militate against modern concerns about children’s sensitivities. It struck me that, since the dragonfly/grasshopper in this movie is a musician, there’s also something of a message regarding the STEM fields and the Humanities underlying this version – a society which doesn’t value its artists will see them all die off in the Winter! On the other hand, the grasshopper/dragonfly does seem to have a drinking problem, and maybe that’s part of the moral as Starevich saw it.

Director: Ladislaw Starevich

Camera: Ladislaw Starevich

Run Time: 5 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Rusalka (1910)

Rusalka

Alternate Titles: Русалка, The Mermaid

Since this is an English-language blog, I usually privilege the English translation of titles, but in this case there were (at least) two other movies called “The Mermaid” in 1910, so it seems best to stick with the Russian for clarity. I found this the best of the Goncharov movies I’ve seen so far. It resembles “A Sixteenth-Century Russian Wedding,” except that it actually has a plot. We still get the large cast, a simulated wedding night, nicely painted backdrops, and stylized period costumes. But we also get a story from Pushkin, as well. The story is of a young prince, who abandons a miller’s daughter in order to marry another woman, closer to his station. The first girl drowns herself in the river, but then the prince cannot seem to shake her image. On the wedding night, he leaves his bride after seeing apparitions. He returns to the mill, and we see many women emerge and return to the water. Then the miller appears, apparently driven mad by his daughter’s death, but also strangely gesturing about the women who come from the water. The prince follows the apparitions into the water, and next we see his body, surrounded by sirens beneath the waves. The final scene looks very much like a borrowing from Méliès, with shells and seaweed all around.

Rusalka1

Director: Vasily Goncharov

Camera: Vladimir Siversen

Starring: Vasily Stepanov, Alexadrandra Goncharova, Andrej Gromov

Run Time: 9 Min

You can watch it for free: here.