Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Month: July, 2015

Those Love Pangs (1914)

Those_Love_Pangs_(poster)

This is a somewhat late-period Charlie Chaplin Keystone comedy. He and Chester Conklin (from “Caught in a Cabaret” and “The Masquerader”) are “Rival Mashers” who live together in a boarding house. It’s hard to believe that women would respond to these two hobo-like men with odd facial hair, but they do. First, Charlie and Chester compete for the attentions of the landlady, pricking each other in the butt with a fork (nothing sexually suggestive about THAT, though is there?) whenever she gives them to the other. Then, they go out into the familiar park we’ve seen in nearly every other Keystone short. There, they encounter two young ladies, one of who has a boyfriend (Vivian Edwards, also in “His New Profession” and “Fatty and Mabel at the San Diego Exposition”), the other of whom shows a strong interest in Chester (Cecile Arnold, who was also in “The Masquerader” and “Dough and Dynamite”). With both of them paired off, Charlie has to try to intercede, resulting in a confrontation with the boyfriend, who gets dunked in the pond. Then, Charlie convinces the girls to accompany him to a Nickelodeon. He doesn’t notice when the men come in and take their places, and there’s a great comic stunt where he panics and manages to knock over every one of the rickety wooden chairs in the theater. Then he’s thrown through the screen. The End.

 Those Love Pangs

Obviously, there are a lot of familiar pieces to this typical short. Charlie’s “Little Tramp” still isn’t as sympathetic as he would become in following years, but we start to get the feeling that he’s the one to root for, even when he’s transgressing social bounds and acting “badly.” The soaking of the boyfriend is anticipated with several “near falls” by Chaplin, who is saved each time by the boyfriend, making it all the funnier when Chaplin finally pushes him into the drink. There are more close-ups in this one, including a long linger one on Cecile – either Chapin thought she was hot or it was in her contract or something. It’s also another of the Chaplins which uses a movie theater as a set, this time filled with Keystone players who are at times a little too obviously in on the joke. It’s a good example of what Chaplin had learned to do in his year at Keystone, but still only a step in his ongoing development.

Those Love Pangs1

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Chester Conklin, Virginia Edwards, Cecile Arnold, Helen Carruthers

Run Time: 12 Min

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

His New Profession (1914)

His_New_Profession

For this Charlie Chaplin Keystone comedy, I was able to find two slightly different edits, but nothing so glaring as in the case of “Caught in a Cabaret,” or even “The Masquerader.” For those who’ve been keeping score, I found another theory as to who re-edited them: William K. Everson claims that Sid Chaplin (Charlie’s brother) created new versions from the originals during his time at Keystone Studios. Until I find a more authoritative source, we’ll assume that’s correct, although it’s interesting that Sid seems to have felt he had a freer hand in re-arranging Mabel Normand’s work than Charlie’s.

 His New Profession

Here, Charlie’s in full Little Tramp getup as he sits in the park, reading. For this opening shot we get a long close-up, suggesting that Keystone (or Chaplin) was beginning to realize that audiences wanted a good look at their favorite comedian. Nearby, a couple argues because they have to look after the man’s (Charley Chase) invalid uncle, who wears a cast. He promises to find a sitter so they can be alone together, she stalks off. The nephew pushes his uncle’s wheelchair right onto Charlie’s foot, which is the perfect opportunity to offer him the job of looking after uncle. Charlie accepts, with no great enthusiasm while nephew sneaks off to his girl. Soon, Charlie comes upon a bar. Nearby, there is a crippled man begging, which gives Charlie an idea. He waits until uncle and the beggar are asleep, then puts the sign and money cup in uncle’s lap. Soon, he has some spending money for the bar. The girl sees the uncle “begging” and breaks up with nephew. The barkeeper is Fatty Arbuckle, but he doesn’t really get any funny bits as Charlie cadges for drinks. This gives Charlie a chance to do his funny drunk bit and he stumbles out as the uncle and the beggar are coming to blows. Then he wheels him over to a pier and tries to bond over a picture of a pretty girl. Then the girl sits next to him and he loses interest in uncle while he tries to mash on her. He pushes uncle to the end of the pier, where he nearly falls into the water – but not quite. Soon, the nephew, two policemen, the beggar, the uncle, the girl, and Charlie are all exchanging blows over who did what to whom. The uncle winds up arrested, one cop falls into the drink, and Charlie is left with the girl, who, in the longer cut, seems none too thrilled.

 His New Profession1

I was sorry to see Arbuckle so wasted, and the other Keystone players didn’t get as many laughs out of me as usual, but this is a fine example of Chaplin’s early work as an actor and director. The final climax was a bit disappointing, too. Somehow having the wheelchair almost fall into the water twice made it seem like it had to happen eventually, though it may have been safer jut to have the cop go in. Charlie isn’t especially sympathetic here, either – he’s a bit of a cad and certainly not a reliable sitter for the disabled man. On the other hand, the nephew is to be blamed for giving the responsibility to a Tramp, I suppose.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Charley Chase, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Harry McCoy, Peggy Page

Run Time: 13 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music, shorter edit), or here (with music, longer)

 

Departure of a Grand Old Man (1912)

Departure of a Grand Old Man

This Russian movie by Yakov Protazanov is more famous for the controversy it provoked than for its content. Leo Tolstoy’s widow sued the company for libel, and was successful in getting its screenings suppressed in Russia, although it was still distributed internationally. She is depicted in the film as being domineering and greedy, and ultimately as causing her husband’s death – surely grounds for a libel suit if I’ve ever heard one! This narrative is not unusual, however. She has often been accused of preventing Tolstoy from giving land and money to peasants and worthwhile causes, and the story, depicted here, of Tolstoy saying “I’m not the boss, check with my wife” had been told anecdotally long before this movie was made, whether it was true or not. It may well be that Tolstoy himself hid behind her as a kind of excuse for his own moral weaknesses, and the movie certainly fails to show the hard work she put into editing his novels.

The movie itself is fairly unimaginative hagiography. Nearly every shot is the same, they are all static, and at fairly long distance from the characters. There is some interesting documentary footage of a train station near the end, but the vast majority of the film takes place inside of small, square-shaped sets with characters entering and exiting as from a stage. The scenes are not inter-cut and do not interact with one another; each is a discreet unit that plays out until the end. A final effect shot was added for the foreign audiences: Tolstoy is welcomed into Heaven by Jesus Christ. Not really what one hopes for from Russian silent cinema.

Directed by: Yakov Protazanov, Eliziveta Thiemann

Camera: George Meyer, Aleksandr Levitskii

Starring: Vladimir Shaternikov, Olga Petrova, Mikhail Tamarov, Elizaveta Thiemann

Run time: 31 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Birth of a Nation, Part VII

David_Wark_Griffith_portrait

This month, I’m going to talk a bit about how historians have treated “The Birth of a Nation,” and where I stand in relation to that historiography as I proceed with this project. As it happens, fate placed in my hand a copy of William K. Everson’s book American Silent Film recently, and, though I hadn’t meant to read much of it, I realized I needed to look seriously at what he had to say about D.W. Griffith and “Birth” because he came from such a radically different position, and because he represents what might be seen as the “standard narrative” for the last forty years or so.

 American Silent Film

Before I get into where I differ with Everson, let’s start with his importance. Prior to his work, film historians often dismissed the silent era as “primitive” or even handicapped by the lack of dialogue. Everson proposed that we think of the silent film as an art form unto itself, “as different to sound film as painting is to photography,” and he was one of the first to suggest that silent film had achieved a level of art far in advance of where it would be in the early years of sound, in other words that the introduction of sound represented a serious setback for cinematography and artistry, one which took years to overcome. These are now pretty well accepted arguments, especially among cinematographers and film historians.

The other thing I should mention is that he had less to work with than we do today, due to the amount of recovered and remastered silent films that have been made available since the 70s. At several points in his book, he predicts that there will be relatively few new discoveries in the future, due to the fragility of nitrate originals and the increasing distance in time since their production. He could not possibly have predicted the power that digitization would have to restore then-unwatchable prints, nor the good fortune that film preservationists have had in finding fortunate survivors in the intervening years.

 GriffithDW

So, what does he say? Essentially, he argues that D.W. Griffith was the only serious artist in early cinema, that everything changed with the release of “The Birth of a Nation” and that everything that came afterwards just built on what he had achieved. Nearly every director he considers worthwhile was “apprenticed” to Griffith at some point, or “imitated” his innovations. He refers to “Birth” as “the full flowering of Griffith’s art” argues that it “established movies as an international art and an international industry almost overnight.” His argument is not based on erroneous ideas that “Birth of a Nation” was the “first” film to include Griffith’s “film grammar;” for this he discusses the Biograph shorts and argues that Griffith perfected his art before making “Birth,” but that by putting all of his talents into an epic, big-budget feature film, he broke through the wall that had kept film simple and un-imaginative for twenty years, establishing it forever as a serious form of expression. So far as content, he claims that the film’s “controversy [is] often artificially created and sustained” and has drowned out appreciation of its accomplishments. He argues that the source, Thomas Dixon’s “The Clansman” was far more racist, and that Griffith dialed back some of that racism for the screen, that the use of white men in blackface was standard practice at the time and necessary because Girffith didn’t know enough African American actors, and that Griffith’s historical perspective was supported by legitimate historians in the period he made it. He accuses the NAACP of “harassing” every showing of the film for over fifty years with “letters…indicating that the writers had never seen the film they were protesting so vehemently.”

 Toms Coons

Before I discuss this any further, I want to pause and take a look at another book from the 70s, Donald Bogle’s book Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks. Bogle is an African American historian whose book explores the history of African American portrayals in film – essentially arguing that all of them were built on stereotypes, and making the point that African American actors always had to play against the stereotypes they were assigned. What does he have to say about “The Birth of a Nation?” Well, he does deplore the content, saying that it originated the stereotype of the “Buck” (through Gus) and also contributed to the “Tragic Mulatto” and the “Tom” with other blackface characters. But, he also says “[i]n almost every way, ‘The Birth of a Nation’was a stupendous undertaking, unlike any film that had preceded it.” He actually goes farther than Everson, claiming that it “altered the entire course of American moviemaking, developing the close-up, cross-cutting, rapid-fire editing, the iris, the split screen shot, and realistic and impressionistic lighting.” Bogle is actually more historically inept in heaping undue praise onto a movie he sees as damaging to African Americans than Everson is in defending it! It only makes matter worse that I’m quoting from the 1998 edition, by which time Bogle had had 25 years to correct these errors. With enemies like these, why would Griffith need friends?

 DW Griffiths Biograph Shorts

So, what we see here is the way that historians have over-played the importance of both Griffith and “Birth” for generations now. With Everson, we also see the desperate justifications for its content, although he is to be credited – unlike Martin Scorsese at least he didn’t try to hide it completely. With this project, I’ve discovered that there were plenty of films as good as “Birth” both before and afterwards and that, yes, other directors did see the motion picture as art and contribute to its development as well as Griffith. One of the reasons this distortion has taken place is that, for various reasons, the Biograph roster of films happened to be the best preserved and easiest to study for many years. It’s still easier to find a Griffith shorts collection than to do a thorough study of Selig pictures, or the career of Lois Weber or Maurice Tourneur. To say nothing of foreign films. And that’s another point. Everson’s book is called “American Silent Film,” but in arguing that Griffith established movies as an “international art form” he needs to take into account the huge distribution of European, especially French, movies in the US prior to World War One.

 Birth_of_a_Nation_theatrical_poster

I’ve discussed the content elsewhere, but so far as the art of cinema is concerned my own argument is this: Griffith did achieve one important “first” with “The Birth of a Nation.” For the first time in cinema history, he placed the importance of advertising and public relations above the importance of the film itself. People remembered “Birth” as the groundbreaking event it has been commemorated as because Griffith TOLD them it was. They shelled out $2.00 to see it, arguably the equivalent of paying $40 or more to see a movie today. He brought a new class of movie viewers to the new movie palaces, and gave them a spectacle that included a live orchestra, ushers in costume, and, yes, an exciting epic of a film. Not a film that stands up as unique to anyone who looks at what else was available at the time, but that’s exactly the point: his audience didn’t go to the movies before “Birth” was released! They saw “Birth” as the “first” all those things because they thought that moving pictures up to that point had been trivial and unimportant. Griffith achieved a publicity stunt that continued to convince the elites who create the narratives about movies for the next 100 years. My argument is that the time has come to challenge this.

Hypocrites (1915)

Lois_Weber_1914_Hypocrites

One thing that often surprises people about the early period of film history is that there were women in positions of authority and artistic control. The common assumption is that gender relations were so fixed in the late-19th and early-20th centuries that women were only there to be exploited and displayed for male pleasure. While there’s plenty to be critical of in terms of gender in front of and behind the screen, an accurate narrative is of course more complex. I’ve mentioned before some of the work of the woman who was a true pioneer of the cinema – Alice Guy-Blaché (and I hope to review more of her works soon), but I hadn’t yet had a chance to speak about her American protégé, Lois Weber. This post will correct that.

However shocked audiences are today or then by Weber’s gender, they were even more shocked by this movie’s content, which includes full-frontal female nudity, possibly the first time that occurred in a non-pornographic context in American film. Its inclusion emphasizes the fact that Weber clearly considered the cinema to be an art form (contrary to those who insist that no one but D.W. Griffith saw this at the time), and its use is deliberate to jolt a complacent audience into awareness of the movie’s message. This film is in that sense simultaneously subversive and also supportive of morality as it was understood by elite classes at the time. The fact that its “shocking” content was used to support a Christian message is precisely why it was able to succeed where a more explicit challenge to social order would have been completely suppressed.

 Hypocrites

The movie consists of a short series of overlapping vignettes. First, we are introduced to the actors in both medieval and modern dress through a series of dissolves. Then, we see the “naked truth” (and she is), who opens a gate, symbolically raising the curtain on the film. “Naked truth” is transparent due to traveling double exposure shots, but we can make her out pretty well. Our characters are then shown to us in a “modern church.” Gabriel, the pastor (Courtenay Foote, who would appear in “His Parisian Wife” and “Tess of the D’Urbervilles”), speaks to them all about hypocrisy, and through a series of close-ups and pans, we get a clear sense that his message is not understood by most of the listeners. This is emphasized when a group of wealthy-looking parishioners outside the church speak of asking for his resignation (“but keep my name out of it”) after congratulating him on a great sermon to his face. Gabriel reads about a statue in Paris representing “Truth” that has been censored, and he imagines himself transformed into a medieval monk. The next sequence involves him, still in monk’s garb, leading his flock on a path through the forest. He comes to a narrow path which breaks off from the main road and is steep to climb, and begins climbing it, urging the others to follow. Only a few do (or can). The message here is made clear when one of the wealthy parishioners refuses to put down a large bag of gold in order to climb the path.

 Hypocrites1

The “meat” of the story begins when Gabriel finds the naked Truth in the forest, having left all of his followers behind, in part because he refuses to assist the one who seems truly sincere – a young woman who may or may not have a crush on him (Myrtle Stedman, later in “Peer Gynt” and “The American Beauty”). Since he cannot bring them to her, he resolves to bring her back to them. Suddenly he is in a medieval monastery, and “after meditation and fasting,” begins work on a secret statue. The one other monk who peeks at it is horrified, but says nothing. On the day of its unveiling, the entire town turns out in its finery. It is, of course, the nude. Everyone is shocked, and riot breaks out. Gabriel is killed. Then, back in modern times, he, accompanied by the naked truth, goes to various places in town representing “politics,” “society,” “the family,” etc. and the Truth holds up a mirror, showing him the base motives behind the apparently upright behavior of the citizens.

 Hypocrites_1915_Naked_Truth

Modern viewers may find this heavy-handed or moralizing, or even funny at times – as when “immodesty” is represented by a group of young bathers in full-length bathing suits that cover them almost to their knees. Even I don’t really get the attitude taken toward “the Woman,” who clearly wants to do right but is consistently abandoned by Gabriel. But it is a very effective and surprisingly creative film. Camera angles and editing are quite modern – ahead, I would say of “The Birth of a Nation,” which was released in the same month. She uses close-ups frequently to bring us intimacy with her characters, and her use of panning cameras is well in advance of anything of the time, including “Cabiria,” whose pans famously inspired “Intolerance.” In the scene with the riot, the camera pans past each group of citizens, allowing them to have their personal reactions to the statue, and growing more chaotic with each movement.

It’s not surprising that this movie resulted in cries for censorship (it was banned in Ohio) and, it is rumored, even “riots” in some places. What is surprising is that it apparently didn’t hurt Weber’s career. The Moving Picture World gave it a very generous review and predicted “a long and emphatic popularity” for the movie. This seems to be correct, as Weber reputedly went on to work at Universal as one of their highest-paid directors and later was the first (and for a long time only) woman to be inducted into the Motion Picture Directors Association in 1916.

Director: Lois Weber

Camera: Dal Clawson, George W. Hill

Starring: Courtenay Foote, Myrtle Stedman

Run Time: 49 Min

I have not been able to find this for free on the Internet. A clip is here.

Child of the Big City (1914)

Evgeni_Bauer

I’m always excited to see another movie by Evgeni Bauer, who is probably my favorite filmmaker from the period I’m studying (so far, at least). Bauer was more daring than most of his contemporaries, and could see that cinema had the potential to be a new way of telling stories, not dependent on older models like the theater, and he avoided theatrical conventions in bringing his visions to the screen. He also had a taste for unusual content, for stories that one wouldn’t be likely to see in American movies of the time.

 Child of the Big City1

I’m tempted to interpret this movie as a combination of the “Lost Girl” narrative typical of American movies with the “Vamp” that would become a hit with Theda Bara the next year. But, really, it is neither of these, although common elements can be found. Marya (or Mary, the English Intertitles vary) is a poor seamstress who works in a sweatshop but dreams of romance. One day, while window-shopping, she gets picked up by two young gentlemen who take her back to a fancy apartment for dinner and drinks. She, unaccustomed to the alcohol, rapidly gets drunk and accepts a proposition to become the “companion” of Victor, the younger and less grabby of the men. At this point, the story takes a turn as we are told she is “ruining” her new companion (presumably by spending a great deal of money on clothes, nightclubs, and a nice apartment). He begs her to join him in a more modest lifestyle, but she has gained a taste for riches and looks elsewhere for someone who can provide her the life to which she is now accustomed. Oddly, she chooses the butler for this purpose, but maybe butlers made more in Russia in those days. Victor continues to obsess over her as he sinks into poverty and hangs around the door to her apartment. Eventually, he sends up a note begging to speak to her again, and she dismisses him with three rubles. He dies on the spot, and she runs off with her society friends to Maxim’s.

 Child of the Big City2

Although this movie wasn’t quite as daring as some of Bauer’s other work, I found it satisfactorily innovative. There are a number of nicely-framed shots, including overheads and a shot up an elaborate stairwell. I liked a shot where we see Marya window-shopping from inside the store, then the reversal where the two men proposition her from outside, to the stern glare of the shopkeeper looking out at them. I also was impressed when a scene opened on an elaborate (closed) door to a nightclub, allowing us to just glance through a small glass window as a car pulls up outside, then moments later the door opens to reveal the arrival of the dinner party. In the existing print, the tracking shot into the nightclub dancer is cut into awkward jump-cuts, which may be an experiment that didn’t quite work (for me) or it could be a mistake in the restoration. There’s another good tracking shot backward as Marya leads her followers out into the night, but it cuts a bit too quickly to be fully effective. Once again, we also get a good sense of lighting, with practicals that seem to provide actual light on the set, and a great proto-noir shot of Victor in silhouette in front of an over-exposed window. On the whole, Bauer’s cameraman Boris Zavelev avoids “square” set-ups and uses diagonal angles, but where he does shoot straight-on, it’s used to emphasize the lack of choice a character (usually Victor) has in his next move. Many of the sets are heavily decorated with baroque props, emphasizing the conspicuous consumption of the wealthy classes.

Child of the Big City

Alternate Titles: Ditya bolshogo goroda, Дитя большого города, The Girl from the Street, Devushka s ulitsy

Director: Evgeni Bauer

Camera: Boris Zavelev

Starring: Elena P. Smirnova, Michael Salarow, Arsenii Bibikov, Lidiya Tridenskaya

Run Time: 37 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Masquerader (1914)

Charlie Chaplin arrives for a day of work at Keystone.

Charlie Chaplin arrives for a day of work at Keystone.

Once again, I’ve found various “edits” of this early Charlie Chaplin Keystone short, with different intertitles and lengths. I’ll discuss the differences at the end, but first I’m going to focus on what I believe to be the more authentic “original” version (at least it’s longer).

 Masquerader

Charlie is employed at a film studio called…Keystone Studios! In fact, this movie clearly saved on money by using the existing studio for its location, but also may have deliberately given curious audiences a peek inside the “dream machine” that produced their favorite comedies. This is emphasized by the fact that the opening shot gives us Charlie in his street clothes, with no makeup on, and then the movie proceeds to his dressing room, where he turns by stages into the “Little Tramp” we’ve come to know so well. Along the way, he meets up with Fatty Arbuckle, another major Keystone star, and Fatty tricks him into drinking hair tonic before they both bump heads across the dressing room table for slapstick effect. Then he goes out to the set, where he is given simple instructions of when to enter and what his cue is. Unfortunately, he’s distracted by some pretty girls (including Fatty’s then-wife, Minta Durfee) and misses the cue, so the director replaces him with Chester Conklin. Then he messes up THAT shot, and is thrown off the lot entirely.

 Masquerader2

The next scene shows a very attractive, though conservatively dressed, young woman applying for a job at Keystone. All the boys are crazy for her and the director is particularly amorous. She convinces him to let her take over the boys’ dressing room (surely there’s a women’s dressing room somewhere, but never mind), and when she finally gets him to leave, she takes off her wig and turns into the Little Tramp. It’s been Charlie all along! The director is bullied by the men into finding out what’s taking so long, and finds him there with her clothes, slowly putting it together and initiating a fast chase with everyone in the joint. Charlie throws some bricks at his pursuers, but he ends up knocked by one their missiles into a convenient well. The gang resolve to leave him there.

ACT-ing!

ACT-ing!

Since this movie was directed by Charlie himself, I’m less inclined to blame him for the unfortunate re-edit, which may have been done by the studio while they still held the rights. This re-edit cuts the entire scene with Charlie missing his cue and jumps to him interfering with Conklin for no apparent reason. The added intertitles are, as usual, not helpful to the comedy, and one of them actually telegraphs the fact that Charlie is the new girl on the set, ruining the surprise when s/he takes off the wig! Of course, if you read this review before watching, that was already spoiled for you…

Masquerader_(1914)

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Minta Durfee, Chester Conklin, Fritz Schade, Harry McCoy

Run Time: 12 Min (original), 9 min (re-edit)

You can watch it for free: here (original, no music) or here (re-edit, with music).

The Peasants’ Lot (1912)

Making hay while the sun shines.

Making hay while the sun shines.

While American film makers like D.W. Griffith were making “progressive” films about the hardships of working people in the USA, Russian film innovator Vasily Goncharov did something similar with this movie. It might also be seen as a more sophisticated version of his “16th Century Russian Wedding,” except that there’s no surviving wedding, just a melodramatic story of young Russians in love. This movie once again illustrates the superior artistry and emotional power of Russian film in the pre-revolutionary period.

What's that behind your back, Ivan?

What’s that behind your back, Ivan?

Here, young Petr (Ivan Mosjoukine, who we’ve seen in “Christmas Eve” and “House in Kolomna”) is in love with Masha (Aleksandra Goncharova, from “16th Century Russian Wedding” and “The Brigand Brothers”). They make time together in a haystack, to the approval of his father, and convince her father that they should be wed. While they are planning, a fire destroys the house of Masha’s family, and they sink into poverty as they are forced to sell off their most important possessions, including the cow that brought in most of the family income. Masha goes to the city in search of labor, as many young peasant people did in Russia during the Czarist period. Just as with an American film in which a healthy, honest young woman from the farm seeks her fortune in the city, Masha soon falls into a dangerous and corrupting situation. She becomes a serving-girl to a wealthy man with an automobile and ulterior motives. Back on the farm, her father becomes ill and the family dispatches a letter asking her to send money quickly. She gets it the only way she can see how – by asking the master for it and doing what he asks in return. She delivers the money, and confesses how she got it, and she and her father commiserate over their unfortunate lot. Petr is now married, and Masha turns to another suitor, but they seem to be mooning over one another as they work together in the fields once more. The version I saw ends suddenly with a shot of Masha’s wedding, she not looking happy at all in her finery.

Take that, Murnau!

Take that, Murnau!

As the fortunes of film preservation would have it, that’s all we have of this movie, because the last reel was lost at some point when the Soviets were “preserving” all Czarist-approved movies. It’s hard to imagine a happy ending, but there might have been a clearer lesson. As it is, we get enough of the flavor, at least to see what Goncharov was doing in trying to make a film about the Russian people (idealized though his view of them seemed to be), rather than Russian high culture like Pushkin and Tolstoy. Especially noteworthy here was the camerawork of Louis Forestier, the Paris-born cinematographer (he also shot “The Brigand Brothers” and “Queen of Spades”). He’s very interested in what the camera shows, what it does not, and when and how to reveal things. In one shot, a critical feature is blocked by Ivan Mosjoukine’s gangly frame in the middle of the shot, until he turns and sees it in the distance, and suddenly that becomes the center-point of the action. In another, a pan begins with two characters seemingly in a harsh street environment, then slowly revealing another direction for them to walk off towards the front plaza of the rich man’s house. The scene where Masha first arrives in the city is highly reminiscent of the farmer couple’s entrance to the city in “Sunrise,” except where F.W. Murnau had to build an elaborate crane and expensive street-set, Forestier gets the same effect with real streets and streetcars, without even needing a close up to achieve it.

Speaking of which, Fritzi Kramer, over at “Movies Silently,” says that this movie “aches for close-ups.” There aren’t any. There aren’t any Intertitles either, and although I had to watch it twice to be sure I caught everything, I don’t regard either of these as weaknesses. We maintain a distance from our subjects in part because they are more archetypes than individuals, but more importantly because it seems like the respectful distance they would ask of us. They are not prudes, these Russian peasants, but they don’t just let any stranger into their intimate worlds. The lack of Intertitles in a semi-literate world also seems highly appropriate. Each outdoor shot takes beautiful advantage of the countryside, and the indoor spaces are always at a pleasing angle, rather than the square “stages” of a Biograph production of the time. Overall, I found it as affecting as the best of Griffith’s melodramas, and better shot than any of them.

Alternate Titles: Krest’ianskaia Dolia, Крестьянская доля

Director: Vasily Goncharov

Camera: Louis Forestier

Starring: Ivan Mosjoukine, Alexandra Goncharova, Pyotr Chardinin, Lidiya Tridenskaya

Run Time: 35 Min (surviving)

I have not found this for free on the Internet. If you do, please say so in the comments.

Mabel’s Married Life (1914)

Mabels Married Life

With this Keystone comedy, we get to see how Charlie Chaplin and Mabel Normand worked together under Charlie’s direction, so this may be a good movie to compare to “Caught in a Cabaret” and some of the other early Chaplins I’ve discussed this week. I’ll admit, the plot holds together better and both characters seem better defined, but this may not be a result of better direction, just the fact that Charlie had come to know “the Little Tramp” better by this point in the year. At any rate, there don’t seem to be “corrected” versions floating around, so the original edit must have satisfied Charlie, or whoever was responsible for the alternate “Caught in a Cabaret.”

 Mabel's_Married_Life_(1914)

Here, Mabel and Charlie are a married couple, and his frequent film-rival Mack Swain is married to one Eva Nelson, who I don’t believe I’ve seen before. They meet in a park that is conveniently near to a saloon. Charlie goes into the saloon and tries to scam some drinks. Meanwhile Mack tries picking up on Mabel. When Charlie returns and sees this, he is unable to deter Mack, even with attempted physical force (Mack just shrugs it off). So, Charlie gets Eva, who has more influence. Mabel and Eva get into a fight, however, and Charlie takes the worst of it. She and Mack leave, Charlie returns to the bar, and Mabel goes shopping. She decides to buy a large mannequin (or punching bag) and dresses it like Mack Swain (OK, that’s weird. Maybe she is into him after all). Mack enters the bar where Charlie is and encourages the other patrons in mocking him. Charlie fights back, knocking pretty much everyone over. Then Charlie, doing his full-on “funny drunk” makes his way home to be confronted by the mannequin. Of course, he thinks it’s Swain and picks a fight. Of course, it’s weighted, so it just bounces back and hits him just as hard every time he hits it. Mabel watches him and laughs. Eventually she goes out and tries to show him he’s fighting a dummy, and winds up getting hit herself. She and Charlie end up on the floor together.

 Mabel's_Married_Life_(1914)1

This movie is paced better than a lot of the early Keystones I’ve been reviewing, and Charlie was smart to make use of Mabel’s reaction shots during the fight with the dummy; they often elevate the humor of his pratfalls. He also clearly respects her as a comedienne (whatever he later said of her as a director) because he gives her several scenes to do funny bits of her own, and plays off her well in their scenes together. Typically, a Keystone ends with a chase or just a degeneration into a scene of crowd-chaos, but here, the ending is actually somewhat understated. The biggest scenes of violence we get are those with Charlie and the patrons at the bar, but the dummy isn’t at all anticlimactic, because Charlie keeps upping the ante and getting hit back twice as hard each time. Still a very simple film, but it works.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Mabel Normand, Mack Swain, Eva Nelson, Harry McCoy, Al St. John

Run Time: 13 Min

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

Caught in a Cabaret (1914)

Caught_in_a_Cabaret_(poster)

For this Charlie Chaplin Keystone comedy, I had to look a bit to find the most “authentic” 1914 version. Charlie, you see, bought the rights to most of his early films and re-released them in the sound era, often re-editing them to “improve” them for sound audiences. You can read a good analysis of the two versions of “The Gold Rush” over at Movies Silently. For this one, the first version I came across (and you can find this one several places on the Internet) had a suspiciously large number of Intertitles, which got me wondering. Movies from 1914 were generally pretty light in Intertitles, and Keystone shorts in particular. Sure enough, it’s the re-edit, which lacks several critical scenes and is actually less funny (to me, at least) because the Intertitles try to put verbal spins on the physical action, but just wind up interrupting it. Since this is a historical project, I’m going to focus on what seems to be the older version, without getting into debates about who has the right to re-edit movies.

 Caught in a Cabaret

Here, Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” is a waiter in a low-class tavern establishment with dancing and a floor show, which I guess qualified it as a “cabaret” by California standards of the day. Minta Durfee is present as a singer and dancer and Chester Conklin is one of Charlie’s fellow employees (he dances a bit as well, possibly off the clock). He takes his dog for a walk on his lunch break and meets Mabel Normand, a wealthy but clueless society girl, while she’s in the process of getting robbed in a park. She takes to him and he poses as someone above his station (the re-edit calls him “Ambassador from Greece,” the older one says “Prime Minister of Greenland;” possibly in a truly original print there’d be no on-screen title for his calling card at all), so she invites him over to meet the folks. They ask him to return for a party later, but a wealthy suitor has been watching it all and follows him back to his dive-y restaurant. Charlie makes up with the boss for being late by conking a large trouble-maker on the head with a mallet, and then dresses “up” and goes off to the party. He flirts with Mabel, getting extremely drunk in the process, then goes back to work again (sheesh!). Now the suitor sees his chance, and suggests to the garden party that they go slumming in town. They pile into the car and head to Chaplin’s place of employment, where he comes out to serve them and does a very funny bit pretending that he just happened to wander in there, which is completely ruined by the Intertitles in the newer version, but of course he is found out, and a fight breaks out between him, his boss, and the rich folks, which rapidly descends into complete chaos. Yes, a pie is thrown in someone’s face (but only one), but that’s only the start of the troubles…

 Caught_in_a_Cabaret_(1914)1

Like a number of Chaplin’s early films, this was directed by Mabel Normand, who, he would insist years later in his autobiography, Chaplin did not regard as a competent director (she was only 22 at the time). He also made it sound like it only happened once or twice, but as this project has demonstrated, there were a few instances. Still, Charlie may have felt more at liberty in his re-edits after the fact since he didn’t think she was a good director. The story is somewhat more complex than is usual for a Keystone short, with Charlie bouncing back and forth between two locations and identities, and the climactic scene of pandemonium takes longer to get to (and is somewhat less satisfying) than in many of the simpler ones. Unfortunately, by cutting out necessary explanatory scenes, Charlie’s later attempt to “fix” the movie only made it less coherent, and, oddly, he cuts down the climax as well (including the pie-in-the-face). Where I chuckled a few times at his version, hers got belly laughs from me.

How many Keystone regulars can you name in this shot?

How many Keystone regulars can you name in this shot?

Director: Mabel Normand

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Mabel Normand, Minta Durfee, Chester Conklin, Edgar Kennedy, Harry McCoy

Run Time: 19 Min (longest version)

You can watch it for free: here. Or take your chances with the re-edit: here.