Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Month: June, 2015

The Birth of a Nation, Part VI

Birth of a Nation

We’ve reached the middle of the year that is the centenary of this controversial and problematic movie, and I went back to review what I’ve written so far. I realized that I have yet to provide the novice viewer with a basic summary of what you see when you watch “The Birth of a Nation,” and that I’ve referred to certain things (like “Gus” or “the scene in the House of Representatives”) without providing any context. Therefore, this post will be a simple re-counting of the storyline and action of the film. I don’t think there’s much danger of losing sight of the underlying message of the movie: The content is precisely what makes it such naked propaganda for the racial order of the old South. I’m not going to worry here about “spoilers,” so if you plan to watch it and care about such things, you’ve been forewarned. Besides, Griffith based it all on “actual historical fact,” so there won’t be any surprises for history buffs.

 Birth of a Nation1

The movie sets the stage in a similar manner to the earlier D.W. Griffith short, “The Fugitive,” but with the advantage of more time to develop character. Two families are presented, one Northern and one Southern, in the period before the outbreak of War. The Northern family is the Stonemans, and it is led by the corrupt abolitionist Congressman Austin Stoneman (Ralph Lewis, also in “The Avenging Conscience” and later “The Hoodlum”). Stoneman has two sons and a daughter, Elsie (Lillian Gish, long a staple in Griffith’s work, including “The Unseen Enemy” and “The Mothering Heart”). The Southern family is the Camerons, headed by the aging Dr. Cameron (Spottiswoode Aitken, who has my favorite first name ever, and was in “The Battle” and “The Avenging Conscience”). The Doctor has two daughters, Margaret (Miriam Cooper, later in “Intolerance” and “Kindred of the Dust”) and Flora (Mae Marsh, whom we know from “The Battle at Elderbush Gulch” and “Judith of Bethulia”), as well as two sons, the most notable of which is the elder, Ben Cameron (Henry B. Walthall, who starred in “The Avenging Conscience” and “The House with Closed Shutters”).

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In the happy times before the war, the Stonemans come to visit the Camerons, and, being white and of the same class, get along very well. Various potential matches are made, with sons of the Stoneman house showing interest in the Cameron girls, and Ben clearly interested in Elsie’s photograph, as well as a developing bro-mance between the younger lads, which involves a lot of wrestling and fisticuffs. Along the way, we also see happy African American slaves at work in the fields and dancing spontaneous jigs on their generous lunch breaks to show their appreciation for their white masters. Then the elder Stoneman is manipulated by his mixed-race mistress into believing that a white Senator raped her while in his home, and the Stoneman visitors are recalled home to the North (it is implied though not stated that this is the real reason that war breaks out).

 Birth_of_a_Nation_war_scene

As with the many Griffith Civil War shorts I’ve discussed before, we get more tearful farewells and proud marches as the young men sign up for their respective armies. This sequence, which covers the war itself, is the focus of much of the praise this movie has received, although I think that Griffith and other directors had actually managed more emotionally effective and exciting battle scenes on lower budgets before this. One sequence involves a group of African American militiamen attacking the Cameron house and looting it, a gross distortion of the brave and disciplined service of such units during the war. At this time, the senior Cameron is struck down by the “scalawag white Captain” of the unit. The part that really stood out to audiences then and critics since is the massive “Siege of Petersburg” battle, in which Walthall’s character earns the moniker “The Little Colonel” due to his bravely charging the Yankee lines long after his men have fallen to their bullets. Again, I think there were better battles, this one actually relies too much on long-shots covered in smoke to hide how few extras Griffith had to hand, but it is one of the big claims of the film to large-scale spectacle. The bros wind up killing each other in combat and the Little Colonel is captured after his mad dash at the trenches.

Birth of a Nation3

Having built the audience up with the thrills of combat and women in jeopardy, Griffith now takes a bit of a breath, and gives the audience a sense that, despite the tragedies and injustices, things may work out after all. Abraham Lincoln is portrayed as “the Great Heart,” who will give the defeated South a fair deal, in spite of the insane radical wing of his party, led by Stoneman, who want to give African Americans legal equality. While in convalescence, Ben Cameron meets Elsie Stoneman working as a nurse in the military hospital. She is as taken with him and he with she, but their hearts are broken by the knowledge that he is to be executed as a saboteur. Mrs. Cameron now steps in, after making a Yankee guard feel guilty enough to permit her to visit her son, she goes off to see Lincoln himself and beg for clemency, which he grants. Everything seems to be returning to normal.

 Raoul Walsh

Enter Raoul Walsh (who later directed “Regeneration” and “The Roaring Twenties”) as John Wilkes Booth, a skulking villain with a mad plan. The assassination of Lincoln is, to my mind, one of the better parts of the movie, with a beautifully re-constructed Ford’s Theater set which apparently had no roof in order to allow the use of natural light. Walsh shoots Lincoln, jumps to the stage, speaks his famous line, and exits dramatically.

Birth of a Nation4

Now we enter the Second Act, the most critical part so far as Griffith and Thomas Dixon, the author of the story, are concerned. This is the depiction of the Reconstruction, the terrible dark time in which the South was punished for losing a war. Stoneman and his cronies are in control of the government, and their twisted ideas of racial equality are forced onto the South, despite all the indignities this causes the white population. Men are forced to salute African American veterans (a reversal of the situation in “Martyrs of the Alamo”), women are accosted in the street, and no white southerner is safe.

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The characters of Silas Lynch (played by George Siegmann, from “The Avenging Conscience” and “Intolerance”), a mixed-race carpetbagger, and Gus (Walter Long, from “Martyrs of the Alamo,” and “The Avenging Conscience”), a “renegade negro” (white in blackface) occupation officer are introduced. Lynch comes down to Piedmont along with Stoneman, to see what a good job of reconstructing the South “his people” are doing, and gets elected Lieutenant Governor by seeing to it that whites aren’t able to vote. In fact, the South Carolina House of Representatives is now overflowing with African American representatives, who have the audacity to eat fried chicken and drink liquor in that hallowed hall. One new congressman goes a bit too far when he takes off his shoes and puts his feet on the desk; a motion is passed forcing him to wear shoes.

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The Little Colonel hasn’t given up the fight, however, and when he sees some black children frightened by a “ghost” (another child under a sheet), he has the brilliant inspiration to form the Ku Klux Klan. His first opportunity to enact justice comes when his sister, Flora, runs across Gus in the woods while out fetching water. Gus insists that she marry him, a freedman with full civil rights, and she runs away. This is probably the most objectionable single scene in the movie (it was certainly the one the NAACP cited most frequently in protests), in which the blackface Gus leers and menaces, while the innocent Mae Marsh shrinks in fear. Finally, to avoid being defiled, she hurls herself off a cliff. Ben rallies the Klan and kills Gus, dumping his body on Lynch’s doorstep.

Shut down all the garbage mashers on the detention level!

Shut down all the garbage mashers on the detention level!

Lynch and the reconstructionists respond with force, attempting to arrest Dr. Cameron when they can’t find his son. He, along with his daughter and some loyal African American servants (former slaves) flee to a cabin in a field outside of town. This is intercut with Stoneman’s final upbraiding by Lynch, who has decided to marry his daughter Elsie. Lynch traps Elsie in a back room, but she is able to get word to the Klan. Now the local militia surrounds the house the Camerons are hiding in, Dr. Cameron stands poised to bash his daughter’s brains out rather than let her fall into the hands of the enemy.

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The Little Colonel leads a heroic charge of robed Klansmen to save, first Elsie, then his father and sister. This is probably the other scene most often cited as innovative and exciting, after the battle of Petersburg. The camerawork is good, with tracking shots following the horses at high speed and several shots of horses charging directly towards the audience. The crosscutting of the two scenes does heighten the tension, but it’s hard today to imagine anyone cheering for hooded Klansmen (and a little frightening, to think of our grandparents doing so).

What a free election looks like, to D.W. Griffith.

What a free election looks like, to D.W. Griffith.

This is followed by a brief celebration and a picture of the new order. On election day, when African Americans prepare to go out and vote, they find mounted Klansmen in front of their doors. They wisely choose to go back in. Terror has won the day. Then there’s a pleasant double wedding of the surviving heroes (Elsie and Ben, Margaret and the largely irrelevant Phil Stoneman), and it ends on an overblown and seemingly hypocritical religious note.

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So, that’s the story of the film people raved about in 1915, and which people have defended and praised ever since in the name of “film history.” The questions this blog keeps asking are, “Whose history?” and “What does this heritage suggest about film as a medium?”

Regeneration (1915)

This is my contribution to the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon, sponsored by Flicker Alley and hosted by Movies Silently, Silver Screenings, and Once Upon a Screen. As it happens, our sponsor Flicker Alley offers a DVD with this movie and “Young Romance,” which I reviewed last week on it. For those who want to see it for free, here is the Worldcat link for that DVD in libraries throughout the world: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/50865456

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Urban criminals have been part of cinema at least since “The Bold Bank Robbery” and “Capture of the ‘Yegg’ Bank Robbers” – both follow-ups to Edwin S. Porter’s smash hit “The Great Train Robbery.” Many of the tropes now familiar to the genre were established when D.W. Griffith made “The Musketeers of Pig Alley.” Raoul Walsh, who learned filmmaking from working for Griffith, returned to the theme for his first feature, “Regeneration,” and in doing so quite probably made the first feature-length gangster movie. The similarities between “Musketeers” and “Regeneration” are pronounced – both involve the redemption of tough guys who’ve grown up in a harsh environment, and both emphasize the human side of the underworld, drawing on the audience’s desire to sympathize with the criminal.

 Regeneration

This movie may confuse modern fans, however, because rather than spending the bulk of its length depicting its protagonist’s criminal career, it chooses to focus on his efforts to rehabilitate himself (his “regeneration”). This can partly be explained by the source material, a book called My Mamie Rose, by Owen Frawley Kildare. This book is a fairly typical “conversion narrative” from the point of view of a former hoodlum gone straight, who wanted to tell of “the miracle that transformed me.” Unlike most such narratives, it isn’t Jesus Christ or a particular church that Kildare credits with his salvation, but the love of a woman named Marie Deering. The real Marie Deering died of pneumonia in 1903, the same year Kildare wrote his autobiography. It was popular, especially among reform-minded progressives, who held Kildare up as an example of the basic decency inside of every criminal, and gave rise to a stage version by 1908. In 1915, William Fox, a successful Nickelodeon entrepreneur who was breaking into movie production (read up on Fox at Once Upon A Screen’s contribution to the blogathon), bought the movie rights and handed the direction to Raoul Walsh.

 Raoul Walsh

Walsh was just starting out his career at this time, and no doubt jumped at the chance to direct the movie version of a popular book. He had worked with Griffith on a number of short films, and was also familiar to movie audiences as an actor. He had played the role of John Wilkes Booth in Griffith’s runaway hit “The Birth of a Nation” (in what I consider to be one of the most palatable scenes in that movie). Now he would take on the challenge of a feature length film with a guaranteed audience among the book’s fans. Fox was a holdout for making movies on the East Coast at a time when much production was moving West, but no doubt the gritty locations of New York strengthened this movie’s impact.

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Regeneration opens in the Bowery area of New York city, with a casket being loaded onto a hearse. This is the body of the mother of our hero, called Owen Conway in this version, and played by Rockliffe Fellows (later in “Rusty Rides Alone” and “Monkey Business” with the Marx Brothers). Or, at least he will be, once he’s done growing out of a series of child actors. He’s taken in by the neighbors, who use him as child labor and an occasional punching bag. Owen and his “family” wear some of the rattiest clothes you’ll ever see on film, and the surroundings are consistently grimy, and random extras in the area are deformed or ugly. This is not a nice childhood. By the time he’s twenty five, and has transformed into Fellowes, he’s the leader of a gang, by virtue of his strength and cunning, and his adherence to the codes of the street.

 Regeneration2

Now into the story comes an ambitious young District Attorney, played by Carl Harbaugh (also in Walsh’s lost version of “Carmen” and “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” with Buster Keaton), who has vowed to clean up crime in the city. His dinner party includes young social butterfly Marie Deering (Anna Q. Nilsson, a Swedish actress, who went on to “Seven Keys to Baldpate” and “Sunset Boulevard“), who, at this stage in her development, thinks that seeing some real live gangsters would be exciting, so he takes them all out to a low-class nightclub/beer hall/vaudeville, where he is rapidly recognized and assaulted by the patrons. Owen watches this all, at first with disinterest, but, after he notices the girl, he steps in and breaks up the fight, saving the slumming socialites from the consequences of their actions. Deering is now convinced that the people living in the tenements need someone to show them the way out of poverty and hardship, and volunteers to work at a local mission, where (of course) she runs into Owen again. Owen starts coming around to the mission more, and disassociates himself from his old gang.

A thrilling scene takes place about midway through the film when Deering takes her charges on an outing on the ferry (where are they going, Staten Island? Not that uplifting, if you ask me, but maybe things were different then). Skinny, one of Owen’s old gang, comes along for the ride and carelessly starts a fire when he throws his cigarette into some rope. The burning ferry becomes a smaller version of the Titanic, with panicked passengers hurling themselves into the drink. Owen manages to save some kids, and the intertitles tell us that no children were killed during the disaster. Years later, Walsh told a humorous anecdote about this scene – that several of the women actors who lept from the ferry had no underwear on, and he and the editor had to draw them onto the film in post-production, due to the way their skirts flew up when jumping into the water. It’s a cute story, but not likely, since the long shot he uses here doesn’t allow the eye to catch that level of detail.

OK, Raoul, now tell me what they're wearing.

OK, Raoul, now tell me what they’re wearing.

Of course, Owen’s old life catches up with him, first, because the D.A. (who is not at all a likeable character, even if he does represent the forces of law and order) is still hoping to get Deering off the charity kick so she’ll marry him, and starts to snoop around to find out about this young punk who shows such an interest in her, and partly because his old colleague Skinny knifes a cop and comes running to him for hiding. It’s the last portion of the movie in which we get all the violence and excitement we expect in a gangster movie, with cops raiding the gangsters’ hangout, nightsticks thrown, guns blazing, and Skinny threatening to do goodness-knows-what after he’s kidnapped Marie. There’s also a marvelous stunt when Skinny tries to escape his fate by hand-over-handing his way across a laundry line tied between two towering tenement buildings. I don’t usually worry overmuch about “spoilers,” but in this case I think the ending is worth preserving – it has elements of redemption but also tragedy.

Regeneration4

Sorry, hipsters, this is what a beer growler really looks like.

Narratively, this movie has a lot in common with the Western genre. It’s very easy to imagine the same story told in California or Arizona: A man is redeemed from his savage, masculine life by the love of a more civilized woman, but has to return to his natural skills when her life and honor are threatened by the forces of his former world. Stylistically, it is very much of the more “advanced” kind of feature we’re getting used to here at the second half of 1915. There is good use of close-ups, lots of different camera angles, cross-cutting, iris shots, zooms, and a generally “freer” camera, that doesn’t feel as locked down as most of the movies of a year or more before. I also noticed a very sophisticated approach to intertitles: where they used to come before the action they described, now they often interrupt and action or explain it right after the fact. There’s also some great depictions of New York’s Bowery district nearly six decades before CBGB and the Ramones made it a playground for kids like me. Note especially the “growlers” (actually dented metal pails) of beer the residents prefer to drink from. The movie has wonderful style and is emotional evocative, even 100 years later. Reviews at the time emphasized its realism and humanity, and John McCarty, writing in Bullets over Hollywood, noted the debt that Marlon Brando’s character and performance in “On the Waterfront” owed to this movie and its spirit of redemption within a world of crime. Folks who enjoy gangster films will find it more than a curiosity.

Director: Raoul Walsh

Camera: Georges Benoît

Written by: Owen Frawley Kildare (book), Carl Harbaugh & Raoul Walsh (screenplay)

Starring: Rockliffe Fellowes, Anna Q. Nilsson, Carl Harbaugh, James A. Marcus, William Sheer

Run Time: 72 Min

I have not found it for free to watch on the Internet. If you do, please post a link in the comments.

Horse Trick Riding (1895)

Horse Trick Riding

Alternate Titles: La Voltige

This is an early contribution to the genre of slapstick by the Lumière brothers. Its simple plot is of a man’s repeated unsuccessful attempts to mount a horse. The would-be rider appears to be an acrobat, as his falls from the horse are, in general, quite graceful. It’s worth noting that in the world of 1895, horses were far more common, and “horseless carriages” were still novelties. That said, it hardly implies that everyone could actually ride a horse – many were relegated to riding in horse-drawn cabs, or driving horses from wagons. The true working class rode in trams, or simply went about on foot. Horseback riding in Europe was something the well-to-do prided themselves on, although the reality often was that they had little practical experience. Thus, this little vignette might be read as a gentle parody of the type of fop who boasts about his fine riding skills and then proves to have not the slightest idea how to handle himself in the saddle. In that sense, it seems to confirm that the Lumières made films with a higher class of audience in mind, although it is true that poor people like to laugh a rich people making fools of themselves also.

Director: Louis Lumière

Camera: Louis Lumière

Run Time: 46 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.

Young Romance (1915)

Young Romance

One of the notices for this film in Moving Picture World stated that it “forever silences the claim that refined comedy cannot be conveyed via the screen.” There’s some truth in that claim, for this is certainly not a slapstick comedy, but it has elements that hearken back to “How a French Nobleman Got a Wife” (as well as its predecessor, “Personal”), and at the same time seems to prefigure the kind of situational comedy that made Clara Bow famous in the twenties.

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Bow would have been right at home playing our protagonist, a spunky romantic shopgirl who decides to save her money in order to masquerade as a well-to-do customer at a seaside resort in Maine, in the hopes of snagging a handsome and wealthy husband. Clara was still only nine years old when this made, though, so instead we get Edith Taliaferro, a stage actress who only made three movies (this being the only one that survives). She handles the transition to silent film well, neither over-acting nor under-acting, but she lacks Bow’s infectious vivacity. Her scheme works well, attracting not one, but two paramours, but, as silent film fans might predict, both of them are just as much imposters as she is. The nice one (Tom Forman, who appeared in the similar “A Gentleman of Leisure” that same year and later in “The Sea Wolf”) just happens to work in the hardware department of the same department store she does. The bad one is a phony count (Al Ernest Garcia, who later did quite a bit of work with Chaplin, including “City Lights” and “Modern Times”) who takes a cheap hotel room fortuitously close to the young hero. This permits him to eavesdrop and foil the plans of the Count when he plots to kidnap the phony young “heiress” in order to extort money from her.

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Visually, I found this movie quite good for early 1915. Much of the movie is shot on location, presumably at a Long Island beach resort, and shots of the beach are at times spectacular. The shots often have a greater depth-of-field than others movies of the time, and even when they are limited to small “stages,” the sets are decorated in a very conscious, balanced fashion, presenting a stylish mise-en-scène, appropriate to the sophisticated storyline. The editing emphasizes contrasts and parallels. We see Edith and Tom prepare for their trips in similar tiny apartments, then arrive and move into strongly contrasting hotel rooms – his dismal and small, hers spacious and lovely. Other pieces of editing, such as the Count’s getaway on a train being intercut with Tom’s boat ride to the rescue also show good use of parallelism. We also get close ups, irises, and an interesting overhead pov shot when Tom peers through a hole in his wall to observe the Count’s nefarious actions. There are minimal special effects, but towards the end of the movie, as the two lovers realize that they must own up to their deceits, we get two interesting uses of matte shots to show their thoughts visually. This reminded me of the scene in the restaurant in “Sunrise,” not to be made for many years yet, in which the husband and wife hold each other while their thoughts hover above them. In all, it’s a nice simple comedy that presages some of the trends in later silent film.

Director: George Melford

Camera: Walter Stradling

Screenplay: William C. deMille

Starring: Edith Taliaferro, Tom Forman, Al Ernest Garcia, Raymond Hatton

Run Time: 58 Min, 30 seconds

I have been unable to find it for free on the internet. If you do, please let me know in the comments!

Photographical Conference Arrives in Lyon (1895)

Photographical Congress

This is another of the Lumière brothers’ first films, and it cleverly promoted itself to precisely the audience they wanted to market to. A conference of professional photographers was scheduled for Lyon, the city where the Lumières worked. Louis arranged to meet the arriving delegates as they disembarked from a river boat, and photographed them with his new cinematographe. That evening, the film was screened for them using the same cinematographe (which doubled as a camera and projector). All of the delegates had the chance to see themselves on the screen, in motion, as a scene they remembered from only hours before came to life. Naturally, it was a huge success. Watching the film now, it is obvious that the photographers recognize Louis – several of them take off their hats in greeting. A smaller number appear intrigued by the camera, though no one actually stops to stare, and I assume Louis or his brother was telling them to keep moving as they walked by the camera. Once again, as compared to an early Edison film, the angle is artistically arranged and the shoot is done naturalistically on location, not in an artificial studio.

Alternate Titles: Neuville-sur-Saône: Débarquement du congrès des photographes à Lyon

Director: Louis Lumière

Camera: Louis Lumière

Run Time: 48 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.

Feeding the Doves (1896)

Feeding the Doves

I first saw this Edison short back in the late twentieth century, when I was in film school, only it was presented as a woman feeding chickens. This resulted in my belief for some time that, “a hundred years ago, chickens could fly,” because midway through the film, some noise causes all the doves to suddenly take flight. Watching it again today, it all makes more sense. There’s a mixture of doves and chickens on the screen, with the chickens mostly in the foreground. Thus, when the birds suddenly leap into the air, what you notice on the ground are the remaining chickens, giving a sort of optical illusion you have seen chickens fly. This appears not to be the case. This movie is actually historically interesting, because it marks the point (October 23, 1896), where Edison started sending prints on paper to the Library of Congress for copyright. This resulted in the inadvertent preservation of a number of films whose negatives were otherwise lost. The flight of the doves adds a good deal of motion to the image, which is probably why someone offscreen made a loud noise to make a more interesting movie.

Director: James H. White

Camera: William Heise

Run Time: 25 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.

Interrupted Lovers (1896)

Interrupted Lover (1896)

Another quickie Edison comedy from the summer of 1896, this one isn’t as long or quite as successful as “The Lone Fisherman.” Here, a young couple sits on a park bench, only to be assaulted during their necking by two men in gardener’s clothes, one wielding a shovel. The young woman appears to be played by a man in drag, but I don’t think that the audience is meant to notice that, so it isn’t intended to be part of the humor. The funny bit is, I guess, just that slapstick violence suddenly invades what seems to be a peaceful scene. It may even have been a kind of parody of or comment upon “The Kiss,” in that audiences expecting another depiction of a loving interlude would unexpectedly have this expectation thwarted and laugh in spite of themselves. Although the framing makes for a very tight shot, I believe this was also shot on location in a park.

Director: James H. White

Camera: William Heise

Run time: 35 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.

The Lone Fisherman (1896)

Lone Fisherman

Made during the September of 1896, this movie is a simple comedy, displaying the ability to get a laugh in just a short time and without the benefit of sound. It reminds me somewhat of “The Sprinkler Sprinkled,” although I wouldn’t call it a remake. A fellow in a Huck Finn-like costume sits down on a bridge, with a fishing pole and takes a quick swig from a bottle. Then, another man walks up behind him and tips the board he is sitting on, dropping him into the stream below. At that point, a horse and buggy pull up, and the passengers get out to laugh at the fellow in the drink. This is an early example of adding a “laugh track” to a movie to play up the humorous effect by giving the audience someone to laugh along with. At the end, the miscreant voluntarily jumps into the water and approaches the camera, apparently saying something, perhaps to the cameraman or the audience about what he has done. It was shot on location in Fanwood Park, not far from the Edison studio, showing that the Edison Company was beginning to think about taking cameras outside of the Black Maria at this point.

Director: James H. White

Camera: William Heise

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Laughing Gas (1914)

Laughing Gas

This is another of Charlie Chaplin’s Keystone comedies, which he directed in the Summer of 1914. The premise is that he is a dentist’s assistant and causes all kinds of mayhem with the patients, the dentist himself (Fritz Schade, also in “His Musical Career” and “Dough and Dynamite”), and the dentist’s wife (Alice Howell, from “Caught in the Rain” and “The Knockout”). The ubiquitous Mack Swain (who was also in “Caught in the Rain” and would co-star in “The Gold Rush”) turns up as one of the patients. Charlie’s character is, if anything, less likeable here than in movies such as “Mabel at the Wheel” and “Tillie’s Punctured Romance” where he played an explicit villain. His objective most of the time seems to be to cause pain and start fights, when he isn’t masquerading as a dentist in order to hit on a pretty girl. He also appears to take pleasure in dosing people heavily with the titular gas. Most of the movie is nonstop chaos, though, and it can’t be denied that it keeps up its frenetic pace and provides laughs with its cartoon-violence.

Alternate Titles: “Busy Little Dentist,” “Down an Out,” “Laffing Gas,” “The Dentist,” and “Turning His Ivories.”

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Fritz Schade, Alice Howell, Mack Swain

Run Time: 13 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Directors of 1915

12068530171690234341director chair.svg.med

Before I get started talking about my subject directly, I need to say a bit about Auteur Theory. I have pretty mixed feelings about it, and I’ve tried to represent that in this blog by giving equal space to cinematographers and directors (although you’ll notice I put directors at the top). In the period I’ve been discussing, the division was beginning to be formalized, with the “director” being, first, the one who told the actors what to do while the camera operator figured out the visuals, and, later, the one with the ultimate authority on the set. Part of the problem is that the concept of “director” vs “producer” was unclear in the really early years, although as cinema moved towards narrative fictional representations, it followed the division of labor that had been established in the theater. In that context, a director was seen as a “creative artist,” while the producer was in charge of practical issues like financing and advertising (the director did answer to the producer for his job, though, more on that in a bit).

So, what’s my problem with Auteur Theory? Two things: first, I think it misrepresents the reality of working on film, especially after the division of labor caused it to become a large-scale, collaborative, industrial process, and, second, it’s promotes laziness among critics and fans.

Let me unpack that a bit for you. Auteur Theory states that a movie director is the “author” of the film, the person with ultimate responsibility for what appears on the screen. The equivalency is problematic. “Authors,” taken to mean the writers of modern novels, represent a new way of thinking about the artist as an individual in Western European society that emerged as Europe moved out of the Middle Ages. Authors are imagined as working in isolation, creating something wholly new and original from their own minds. However well this does or does not work for literature of different times and cultures, it doesn’t translate well to working on a movie. Anyone who’s been on a movie set knows that literally hundreds of decisions are made every day by people other than the director. The director may have “ultimate” authority on the set, and certainly has the right to suggest things he or she thinks are “important,” and will be the final arbiter of many of these decisions, but I’ve never seen a director who was enough of a micro-manager as to directly decide the placement of every light, or the exact shade that each wall is painted, or the detailed placement of every prop, or the precise body language the actors use. Directors do hire the people they think will do the best jobs for each of these things (often in collaboration with their boss, the producer), but that’s not the same as “authoring” them. That’s “management.” In terms of management, though, the producer really has the final say, even to the point of being able to fire directors in the middle of making a movie. And some producers seem to have as much right to be seen as “auteurs” as directors: noted examples would be Darryl F. Zanuck and “The Longest Day” and the collected works of Val Lewton. I think I’d suggest Spielberg’s influence on the original “Poltergeist” and George Lucas in terms of everything he’s produced as well.

Where I see the laziness creeping in is the language of criticism. I have seen classic movie bloggers write that a movie was “shot by” or even “lensed by” the director. No, that would be the cinematographer (or even the camera operator, to be really precise). I have a certain affection for cinematographers, partly because the movie “Visions of Light” was a turning point in my life and thinking about movies, and partly because of working for a cinematographer-turned-producer/director in my main real world movie job. But, I’m not going to propose a “Fotografia Theory” that places them as more important than directors, the way some writer did in proposing “Schreiber Theory.” Possibly, sometimes, especially in the very early years at Edison or Lumière, they might have been. But, my point is that there is no real “author” of a movie. It is a collaborative effort, and everyone’s job is worth noticing and recognizing. A serious critic needs to make themselves familiar with each of these jobs and, where possible, give credit where it is due. If you don’t have the time or ability to do that, at least try not to say Orson Welles did what Gregg Toland is actually responsible for, OK?

Gregg Toland cries every time you say Welles shot Citizen Kane

Gregg Toland cries every time you say Welles shot Citizen Kane

OK, back to 1915. I don’t mean all of the above to be taken to say that “directors are unimportant.” They have a lot of responsibility, and they do have an impact on the creative aspects of the movies they direct. So, let’s talk for a bit about some of the leaders, as well as the up-and-comers of 100 years ago.

 GriffithDW

I think I have to start with D.W. Griffith, who in 1915 was riding a wave of popularity and controversy to be possibly the most known director of his time. After years of making shorts for Biograph, he left over the issue of wanting to make feature-length films when the studio refused to release “Judith off Bethulia.” He is often credited in (lazy) film histories with having invented everything from the close-up to sliced bread. Actually, during the years he made shorts, he really was quite an innovator, and I think deserves special credit in terms of developing the editing techniques that allow audiences to understand simultaneous action taking place across distances, which is vital to establishing suspense in the movies. It’s fair to ask, however, whether there was a particular editor at Biograph he worked with in developing this technique.

 Evgeni_Bauer

I’ve already waxed poetic about Evgeni Bauer, who I think may be one of those few directors that might be able to claim something like “auteur” status, not least because of his training in set design and the obvious care he gave to camera placement. In 1915 his movies included “The 1002nd Ruse” and “After Death,” my personal favorite of his.

 Charlie_Chaplin

Not often spoken about in terms of directing is Charlie Chaplin, who directed most of the movies he appeared in, starting about mid-way through his year at Keystone Studios. By this point in 1915, he’s at Essanay, and is directing some of the classic shorts that made him an immortal. It’s hard to extract Chaplin’s directing from the rest of his mythos, but I would say that he had a talent for fast-moving action that slapstick work, and that it took him a while to start thinking seriously about character development or even sympathetic characters. His later work proves that he did get it, eventually. This year, his work includes “The Tramp” and “Burlesque on Carmen.”

 Cecil B DeMille

One of the new faces on the scene is Cecil B. DeMille, who started out late in 1914 working for producer Jesse Lasky. DeMille is remembered today mostly for making sprawling epic films, but he actually did quite diverse work in the first few years. After two solid Westerns, he turned to character-driven melodramas, like “Carmen” and “The Cheat.” These are both very sophisticated movies for their day, both in terms of the mature subject-matter, and the complex story-telling structure and camerawork. DeMille was doubtless assisted by a crew of excellent quality, but he showed considerable promise right out of the gate.

 Maurice_Tourneur_in_1919

We’ve also got Maurice Tourneur, whose son Jacques would also go on to be a director of stylistic films. Tournuer had started in France and wisely got out before World War One to work at the World Film Company. He gave us “The Wishing Ring” in 1914, an “Alias Jimmy Valentine” in 1915. These are both very good character dramas, with the former a pleasant fairy tale fantasy and the second an early installment in the gangster genre. The other night I was watching an old Abbott and Costello movie in which a safe was cracked and a joke came up about “making like Jimmy Valentine,” suggesting that the movie still had some resonance a generation later.

 Louis_Feuillade

Finally, I want to mention Louis Feuillade, who kind of “started it all” for this blog with “Fantômas” and its sequels. I took time to look at some of his shorts earlier this year, and I found his work amazingly diverse. He probably would have agreed with Auteur Theory, being French and given to writing manifestos about filmmaking. Maybe in his case it applies. The thing that stands out to me about his productions is how visually rich they can be, especially when he goes outside and shoots on location, instead on the cramped indoor sets at Gaumont Studios. I anticipate returning to his crime series “Les Vampires” in time for Halloween this year.